Google received backlash early December for search results that appeared on Google Images.
This controversy started with an anonymous 99-character tweet: “Google search sexy white mom….then Google search sexy black mom.. Retweet [share] so everybody can see this.”
The call to action revealed that “sexy white mom” searches yield fully clothed white women and some in scantily clad, while “sexy black mom” searches result exclusively in pornographic images.
Hundreds of users retweeted the original post. Users also found that pornographic image search results were associated with other racial and ethnic minority groups.
The hashtag #sexyblackmom trended on Twitter and eventually on Instagram. Google received such backlash that the images were erased altogether just hours after the hashtag began.
Several factors yielded unequal and lewd results.
First, consider the fetishization of Blackness. Throughout history, African-Americans have been typically fetishized for their bodies. Slave masters often raped Black women because they were fond of their curvaceous bodies. Some slave masters believed that they were doing women a “favor” by raping or sleeping with them, since black men were seen as “animalistic” and “brutal.”
There is a myth that rape is primarily about impulsive sexual desire, but studies show that the major motive for rape is power, not sex. Sex is often used as a weapon to inflict pain, violence or humiliation. The fetishization and molestation of black women developed the Jezebel Caricature.
The “Jezebel” stereotype is the depiction of the hypersexual black woman. It’s one of the main reasons why white Americans think that black women are slutty, immoral, and oversexed. During the 19th century, Saartjie Baartman was exhibited as freak show attraction around Europe, to show off her behind under the name “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman is one of the most notable examples in history but modern examples include Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj in “Anaconda.”
Is Google feeding this Jezabel caricature the same ways artist profit from it?
To truly understand why Google is under fire, we have to understand how their search engine works.
Google’s Inside Search outlines the search engine’s three-step process for yielding results. The first phase is “crawling and indexing,” whereby Google follows website links from page to page, then sorts pages by their content and other factors.
In short, Google sorts information based on sites’ content and catalogs factors that would likely cause one to search individual sites.
Part two involves Google’s algorithms.
Once a user types something into Google, algorithms look for hints (tags, trends, etc.) to determine which sites and documents are most relevant.
For example, typing in “sexy white mom” may yield an image of Beyonce, because she is wearing a white coat.
Part three is fighting spam. Those pesky Candy Crush invites on Facebook? That’s spam. Google tries to keep search results relevant by automatically removing information that it determines is not useful to a user.
So, is Google innocent?
“Sexy white mom” vs. “sexy black mom” isn’t the first ostensibly racist Google images controversy.
On June 6, Kabir Alli recorded a video of himself typing “3 white teenagers,” in which white teenagers appeared smiling, laughing and casually dressed.
“3 black teenagers” searches yielded mug shots of black teenagers.
Alli told Guardian Australia that he didn’t believe Google was racist.
“The results were formed through the algorithm they set up. They aren’t racist but I feel like they should have more control over something like that,” Alli said.
A Google spokesperson released the following statement toFUSION via email:
“Our image search results are a reflection of content from across the web, including the frequency with which types of images appear and the way they’re described online. This means that sometimes unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject matter online can affect what image search results appear for a given query. These results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs — as a company, we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures.”
Perhaps blame should be placed on the subjugation of women in general, especially women of color. Mainstream media has insisted for decades that white women are more attractive, more intelligent, more polite and more prize-worthy than black women. Black women are portrayed as sassy, big-behind, neck-rolling, angry women with larger-than-life attitudes, good only for singing and dancing. In this sense, perhaps obscene search results for “sexy black mom” reflect American culture, not Google.
But senior Asha Hill believes Google is at fault.
“They are responsible for what should come up on their website.”
Freshman Sade Reid alluded to structural powers.
“I know someone who works for Google, and they stated that they were the only black person in their place of business,” said Reid.
Perhaps the question is not who is to blame, but how the largest search engine maintains inequity online. If Google lacks diversity, perhaps it is easy for seemingly racist and sexist search results to go unaddressed.