Friday, May 9, 2008

Ethnic Categories

The original architects of apartheid gathered around a map of a planned township.These are not Wikipedia Editors
deciding how to categorize people
... or are they? Image via Wikipedia
I've been writing about non Wikipedia subjects for a while. That's partly because there are a lot of things on the boil over there that haven't quite come to a clear resolution... and partly because some of those things kind of upset me.

One of those things is the very existence of "ethnic categories" (for those who don't know, the Wikipedia category mechanism lets you put things, such as articles or user pages, or even other categories in categories. For example I'm in the category of Wikipedia administrators open to recall (among others), and my favorite article, SS Christopher Columbus, is in Great Lakes ships, Whaleback ships, Victorian era passenger ships of the United States, 1893 in the United States , and History of Chicago ... whew! go check to see what I mean, I'll wait).

An ethnic category, oddly enough, places a person's article into a category by what ethnicity they are. For example, the article on Barak Obama is included in the category
Afro-Caucasian people among the many other categories it has been placed in. (again, go see, I'll wait)

So what's the harm in that, you ask and why am I upset? Well, because the BLP policy dictates, and good ethical behaviour requires, that editors do no harm. But the very act of categorizing someone is itself harmful. Especially if it is done "by eye". The project has seen editors who add someone to a category based on their appearance... if someone "looks a little bit black and a little bit white" they add them to Afro-Caucasian. We don't work that way, we need sources for things, not just eyeball identification. When challenged about this, some of these editors have resorted to calling those that challenge them, and remove the categories "racist", which is a bit of a stretch.

Further, in a fair number of cases there is little or no relevance to the categorization of someone as something. Consider Sydney Tamiia Poitier for example, you learn nothing from knowing she is in the category Afro-Caucasian, as the article at current does not touch on why it is significant that she is in that category. Yet we had edit wars over that category for some time.

The reader does not gain any understanding about the subject by seeing the category, and their ethnicity had no discernable effect on their career. The policy of undue weight says we should not be adding information to the article that doesn't advance the overall narrative, or that leaves false impressions.

I've been involved in some of these discussions with editors that resist removal of these categories and I find it highly frustrating. I wish the categories didn't exist at all. That's part of wishing we lived in a world where we are all color blind and don't care what a person looks like or where they came from, just what they bring to the marketplace of ideas. But if they must exist I want to see only people who have reliable sources documenting they belong there, and moreover, reliable sources documenting that it somehow matters. That it somehow is relevant to their biography.

So I'm frustrated with that.

What about you? Should we have ethnic categories at all? If we do, what should the criteria for inclusion in them be? Strict? Or not so much?


J said...

I say keep the categories and make them verifiable. I think I would like to live in a world where people didn't think of each other in such terms, but I recognize that I don't. I agree with very much of what you say but I concede that these categories can be marginally useful, if they are verifiable. We do need more eyes on these categories to ensure they are not misused, I think.

MessedRocker said...

Avoid ethnicities. Go with bona fide nations with bona fide boundaries that are of no dispute. Making Obama a Kenyan-Anglo-American of sorts. (I am making the assumption Ann Dunham is of English descent based on her name).

You know what? That's a mess. How about we stop acting like racists and call everyone "humans".