A tweet by Twitter user @BonKamona has gone viral this week and sparked an international conversation, after she drew attention to the Google Image search results she found when looking up “unprofessional hairstyles for work” and “professional hairstyles for work.”
Her post was retweeted more than 10,000 times in less than two days and drew a slew of responses, many of them critical of Google and of the perceived “racism” of the results.
However, others noted that many of the images that appeared in the results for “unprofessional hairstyles for work” linked through to articles and blog posts featuring thoughtful discussion the issue of black women’s hair being deemed “unacceptable” for the workplace.
Journalist Andrew Leung of Mic commented: “The argument that the images are being used in a positive light is beside the point; the very existence of these types of articles and social media posts illuminates how black women are discriminated against in the professional sector because of their ‘natural’ hair. ”
In November last year, Bournemouth University graduate Lara Odoffin wrote that an employer had withdrawn a job offer because she wore her hair in braids.
In the note she shared on Facebook, the unnamed company said: “Unfortunately we cannot accept braids – it is simply part of the uniform and grooming requirements we get from our clients. If you are unable to take them out I unfortunately won’t be able to offer you any work.”
In her Facebook post on the subject Lara wrote: “This type of discrimination should not still be happening in this day and age and any establishment still condoning such practices deserve to be shamed and criticised.”
“No workplace has any right to forbid you from this. This is discrimination and I am disgusted that I had to be subject to such behaviour in this 21st century.”
Lara’s case echoed that of Simone Powderly, another young black woman who made headlines in 2015 after a recruiter asked her to remove her braids or else miss out on a potential opportunity with a modelling agency. Simone told The Voice: “I couldn’t decide what to do; if I took them out then I wasn’t standing up for equal rights and basically saying it’s OK to discriminate against me.”
Responding to the furore prompted by @BonKamona‘s tweet, Google told Metro.co.uk: “This is fundamentally a societal problem — there are persistent and problematic biases, and they’re quite pervasive in the media, on the web, etc – meta-tagging their images with their own descriptions.
“Search engines in turn reflect what’s on the web. This is not unique to our search engine; Yahoo! and Bing show similar results.
“We welcome feedback and we’re always working to improve our search results. As a company we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures — these search results do not reflect Google’s view on the matter.”