Screengrab via Google Images (CC-BY)
We may never know the mystery behind the algorithms for Google Image search, but whatever they are, they’re pulling up pretty racist results when it comes to hair.
Twitter user @BonKamona (Rosalia) discovered this the other day when she Googled “unprofessional hairstyles for work,” which resulted in an image page populated only with pictures of black women. When she searched for professional styles, the results were all white women.When we Googled the same phrases, we got similar results. “Unprofessional hairstyles” featured twists, braids, and other natural hair looks, while “professional hairstyles” were mainly on white women with straight hair. Paradoxically, a braided hairstyle on a white woman came up as “professional,” while similar looks on black women did not.
The perception that natural hair is inherently unprofessional is something many black women fight against on a day-to-day basis. In 2014, the U.S. military released its grooming guidelines for recruits, which deemed twists, braids, and headbands “unauthorized.” “Most black women, their hair doesn’t grow straight down, it grows out,” wrote Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs in a petition to the White House. After the backlash, the military revised its guidelines.
Even in the world of fashion, many black hairstyles are frowned upon. In 2015, when singer Zendaya Coleman wore her hair in long dreadlocks to the Oscars, E! Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic said her hair must smell like "patchouli oil or maybe weed."
This is not the first time Google's algorithms have landed the company in hot water. Last year, the auto-tagging feature on Google Photos filed a photo of two black people under the tag “gorillas.”
Though Google did not give Daily Dot a formal statement, someone with the company noted that search engines simply reflect what's on the Web and that search results don't reflect Google's views on the matter.
Some have pointed out that when you click through the images under “unprofessional,” they lead to articles precisely about how black women’s hair is considered unprofessional, and the ridiculousness of the claim. So perhaps Google is just picking up on the word “unprofessional” being in articles about black hair, regardless of the connotation. But that doesn’t account for the lack of black women and natural hairstyles in the “professional” search.
Hopefully Google can fix this. Or, maybe we can stop associating perceptions of professional value with hairstyles? Just a thought.
Update 12:58am CT, April 7: Amended to include Google's response.