Before you continue reading the article, do the following:

  1. Open two web browser tabs
  2. In the first tab, search for "professional hair" on Google
  3. In the second tab, search for "unprofessional hair"

😲 😭 😠

Google Image Search Results for 'professional hair'.
📷 Google Image Search Results for 'professional hair'.
📷 Google Image Search Results for 'unprofessional hair'.
Google Image Search Results for 'unprofessional hair'.

Looking at both search results there is quite a clear bias towards race and gender. Firstly, the top search results for 'professional hair' show 'white' people (with one black person), and only 'black' people appear in the search results for unprofessional hair. Secondly, in both searches, only females appear in the search results.

Why is it only black people and females that appear in these search results?

Is Google racist and biased against women?

Or is it something else?

How does Google image search work?

First, let's try to understand how Google Image Search results are determined, i.e. what methodology or algorithm does Google use to determine which images are relevant to a text search. After all, these are images, and not text.

For the purposes of these examples (it will become apparent later in the article) we're referring to text searches for images using Google Images Search.

According to Google,

"[Image Search] analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content."

Furthermore, Google also uses sophisticated algorithms to remove duplicate images and ensure that the best quality images are presented first in your results."

Our first clue: analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption...

So, whoever writes or blogs determines (primarily, there are other factors too) whether an image appears in Google Image Search results depending on the keywords adjacent or in the caption of the image, not necessarily the "content" of the image. Also, Google indexes the images on a website the same way it indexes web pages, by crawling across the Internet periodically.

With this knowledge, let's investigate further what cause the Google Search for 'unprofessional hair' to show results of images of black women.

Digging deeper

Below is an image that appears on the search results for 'unprofessional hair'. Upon visiting the page where the image appears, you get the following.

Article titled "Toronto Principal Tells Eighth-Grader Her Hair is Office 'Too Poofy' and 'Unprofessional'
📰 Article titled "Toronto Principal Tells Eighth-Grader Her Hair is Office 'Too Poofy' and 'Unprofessional'

Reading the above article it becomes clear why it showed up at the top of the Google Image Search results for 'unprofessional hair'. 'Unprofessional' and 'Hair' also appear in the article's title which would likely make it carry more weight for the 'unprofessional hair' image search.

The next image is from our seach results for 'unprofessional hair' is from Pinterest. The funny part about it is the Pinterest page (or do they call them "Pins" over there?) is actually in defense of black woman's natural hair but unfortunately it mentions the word 'unprofessional'.

Pinterest Pin titled "It's Ridiculous To Say Black Women's Natural Hair Is "Unprofessional"!
📷 Pinterest Pin titled "It's Ridiculous To Say Black Women's Natural Hair Is "Unprofessional"!

Let's check out the image of Michelle Obama that also came on the first page of the image search results.

Article titled "Is America Ready for A “Natural” 1st Lady?
📷 Article titled "Is America Ready for A “Natural” 1st Lady?

Now this one is a bit odd. It mentions hair, yes. But there's no mention of the word 'unprofessional'. Given that Google runs other word analysis algorithms, it is possible (can anyone confirm?) that it also uses synonyms of a word when determining search results given that this specific article also alludes to America not being ready to accept a 1st lady with curly hair as opposed to straight hair which is perceived 'professional'.

Ok. Last image for evaluation.

📺 Video titled "Natural Hair Talk | Unprofessional & Professional Hair in the Workplace

Again, same pattern. Mention of the word unprofessional, features black female or natural hair etc.

Note: I'm only highlighting five of the search results in this article but having looked at over 30 of the images that came back, the pattern holds true.

What does this all mean?

More importantly, back to the initial question at the beginning of the article, that is,

Is Google racist and biased against women, or are these results a product of something else?

Mirror! Mirror!

Let's dismiss the first question of whether Google or its algorithm is racist. As pointed out above, none of the content is generated by Google, more importantly I find it also difficult to attribute any form of bias that Google might have to display only black women when one searches for 'unprofessional hair'. Having evaluated many of the search results (30+), without fail each one that featured a black woman or girl had the words unprofessional or alluded to black woman's natural hair not being suitable for the workplace or professional settings.

Is Google's search algorithm racist and biased against black women, or are these search results a product of something else?

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Interestingly, as is the case with the Buzzfeed article and others evaluated, some of these articles, Pins, etc. stating (with exclusion of those defending black women's hair) that black women's hair is unprofessional are written and posted by black women!

Thus, Google is just a mirror, a reflection in this case of what most (or rather more accurately: most with sites that have good SEO For 'unprofessional hair') are saying.

But here is the paradox.

In writing and publishing this article we've also added to the quantity of the results that come up showing black women's hair as unprofessional.

😢 😭

This also highlights are web search (Google specifically) is still not context aware as it also brings up pages speaking against people black women's hair being labeled unprofessional. In my opinion, still a lot of room for growth for web search despite Google's dominance.

Did you know?

I mentioned earlier that we'll be focusing on text searches for images, for those who didn't know, you can search for images by dropping an Image in the search bar. The results that come back will be of similar or the same image across the Internet.

— By Tefo Mohapi

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