Seeing is believing: why (online) visibility matters

9 March 2020

In January 2020, the story of Vanessa Nakate, a young Ugandan climate justice activist who started her own climate movement in Uganda, made headlines around the world. On 17 January, Nakate spoke at a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, together with activists Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille. Other than Vanessa, all of the others were white women. The Associated Press published a picture of the event where Vanessa was cropped out of the group. Here is what Vanessa said to the press afterwards:

Tweet by Vanessa Nakate via @vanessavash.

When I saw the photo, I only saw part of my jacket. I was not on the list of participants. None of my comments from the press conference were included – It was like I wasn’t even there.

Nakate asked the news agency via Twitter why she was cropped out and called out the media agency on their racial bias. At a time of huge visibility for young climate justice activists, Vanessa – the only black and African activist, was made invisible. As Vanessa explains in this video, being removed from that image didn’t make only her image invisible, it also made her climate activism for Africa invisible.

“Seeing is believing” is a catch-phrase that associates evidence with the visible. But what happens when we cannot see? What happened to Vanessa Nakate proves (once again) that invisibility is real, violent, and socially constructed to preserve structures of powers and privilege. Vanessa’s story is also a symptom of how the climate crisis is unequally and unfairly impacting those we see less. Unfortunately Vanessa’s story is not an exception because invisibility often disproportionately affects black, brown, indigenous, LGBTQIA, and Global South women.

That’s why every March, we at Whose Knowledge? get organizing with our friends and partners from around the world. We run a campaign to bring images of notable women, especially black, brown, indigenous, and trans* women to Wikipedia and the broader internet. Only ¼ of the biographies in the world’s largest online encyclopedia represent women. Only 20% of these biographies have images. Vanessa Nakate’s biography was no different. Her page was created on 25 January 2020, but her picture was only added[1] on 6 February, by Wikipedia editor and AfroCrowd Executive Director Sherry Antoine. She explains why adding Vanessa’s image to Wikipedia was important:

Image by Shanluan, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I had taken note of the blatant and literal erasure she had experienced in the news and when I realized later that not only was she made invisible in the news media, she was invisible on Wikipedia as well, I realized that at least in this context, there was something I could do. I was overjoyed when I reached out to her that she was willing to make this photo available to the Wiki community via Wikimedia Commons. Now we not only know her name and can acknowledge some of her contributions through her Wikipedia article, but her face is back in the picture we have of this moment in history.

Image by Vanessa Nakate, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately for Wikipedia and the broader internet, women like Vanessa Nakate, Marielle Franco, and Delta Meghwal are often considered notable enough to be seen only when they become the victims of public, significant and life-threatening violence, trauma and pain. Too often, that’s how and when they make history. Rarely are these women and their achievements first seen, acknowledged and celebrated for who they are and the impact they make in their communities and the world.

This is the invitation that #VisibleWikiWomen brings to us all. In order to decolonize the internet we experience today, and create a feminist internet where we can be the fullest of ourselves, we need to make sure that all women and their knowledges and accomplishments are seen and affirmed. Women, especially black, brown, indigenous, and trans women are and have always been protagonists of our histories, against great odds. It’s time for us to be seen and celebrated online in the same powerful ways we live our lives.

Join us for the #VisibleWikiWomen 2020 campaign!

[1] A previous image was added to Vanessa’s biography on Wikipedia. But, unfortunately, that image was still under copyright, so it was removed. The new image, uploaded by Sherry Antoine, was released on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, with Vanessa Nakate’s consent.


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