Google Equates Black Girls With Sex; Why?

The search engine's profit motive doesn't always work in the best interests of women of color.

Generic image (Monkey Business/Thinkstock)
Generic image (Monkey Business/Thinkstock)

The first page of search results are the most important, because research shows that most people don’t go much further. In my study, only one resource out of 10 was an empowerment-oriented organization: Black Girls Rock! And the ads down the right — from which Google makes most of its money — were sexually explicit. What was clearly missing on the first page of the search in 2011 was content focused on the educational achievements, interests or social success of black girls. Even fashion, games or entertainment targeted toward black girls did not get much priority on the first page.

And what about the two famous black girls in the White House for the past four years? Nope. Absent from the first page, too.

In other words, Google, in one algorithmic click, had made black girls synonymous with sex.

This bothered me. I wrote about this issue for Bitch magazine in the spring of 2012 because it was time to have a frank discussion about what happens to girls and women in search engines. Shortly after that, the results on searches for black girls changed.

Today, when I do the same search, is the first hit. (Try it.) While it’s not a porn site, it plays off stereotypes of black women and girls for its readers’ delight, and its content is consistent with old, derogatory ideas about black women that have often been used to justify their mistreatment.

It is true that results shift over time. Yet, over the two years I studied searches on black girls, what was disturbing is how sexist content was relatively the same, and it was consistently worse for black, Latina and Asian women. Some results are changing, but some ideas remain.

Today, when you search for girls of any type, you still often get sexist material. As I’ve written and talked about this phenomenon, I’ve noticed that hypersexualized representations of black girls have declined, but not so for Asian and Latina girls. We often get content that is derogatory or sexualized — not positive or empowering — for which the audience is not likely an actual girl. Racist and sexist misrepresentations are real.

So yes. Google is racist (and sexist), but it’s complicated.