*An MBA student named Rosalia recently Googled the phrase “unprofessional hairstyles for work” and was taken aback by the images that popped up.
According to The Guardian, the search engine churned out images of mostly black women with natural hair, while a search for “professional” styles for work produced pictures of white women.
Rosalia noted that often, the hairstyles in the pictures were not vastly different between the two races – only the hair texture and the wearer’s skin color.
I saw a tweet saying “Google unprofessional hairstyles for work”. I did. Then I checked the ‘professional’ ones ??? pic.twitter.com/5KLg7FZ6Hq
— Rosalia (@BonKamona) April 5, 2016
Rosalia’s tweet has since been retweeted thousands of times – more than 6,200 in the first 24 hours, she says – as her discovery sparked discussion on implicit racial biases against black people in the workplace. Can an algorithm itself be racist? Or is it only reflecting the wider social landscape?
On a basic level, Google Images primarily figures out who or what is shown in a picture by judging the text and captions that surround it. It’s possible though that some rudimentary image analysis – the kind that can tell a face from a landscape – is also involved. In the case of the great hair debate, Google Images seems to have taken many of the pictures of black women wearing the “unprofessional” hairstyles were from blogs, articles and Pinterest boards. Many of these are by people of colour explicitly discussing and protesting against racist attitudes to hair. One image led me to a post criticising Hampton University’s ban on dreadlocks and cornrows; another was linked with a post celebrating natural hair and the “ridiculous” pressure to straighten it for the office; here’s a rejection of the idea that big, natural curls are “distracting” in a newsroom.
Ultimately, the algorithm is mirroring conversations about “unprofessional hair” biases, not making a ruling. In fact, just a day after Rosalia’s tweet went viral, memes about the discrepancy, screencaps of the tweet itself, and other recent related images topped the results of the Google Images search for “unprofessional hairstyles for work”. But it still raises questions about the role of algorithms in how we use the web, and pokes a few holes in the utopian fantasy of what the Internet is for.