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World White Web: Is racism still rampant on the internet?

Swedish graphic design student Johanna Burai was working on a school project to do with senses and was looking for a picture to symbolise touch. So she went on Google images to do a search for “hand” and discovered that all the hands that came up in the search results were white.

“I was looking for a picture of a black hand actually, so I googled ‘black hand’ and the results that came back were only of black pictograms or hand prints. That was a year ago when the idea came for maybe trying to change the search results,” Burai tells me over the phone from Sweden.

Burai is quite nervous on the phone and as English is not her first language, is worried about conveying the point correctly. This is understandable – racism is a touchy subject and Burai, who is white, has opened herself up to a lot of abuse online. She set up her project World White Web “to put an end to the norm of whiteness on the Internet”. Burai wants to end discriminatory search results by getting people to share non-white hands on social media sites and link back to her website. She is hoping this will boost the ranking on Google – and in turn create change.

Apart from searching for “hands” did Burai find other examples of discrimination as well?

“Yes. You can probably search any word and the images will represent mostly white people. I googled face, woman, man, legs and all the search results looked the same.”

I decided to see for myself by googling “hand” in Google images and sure enough, what came back did match what Burai was telling me. But googling “face” did bring up a range of ethnicities. The term “woman” probably showed up less ethnic results.

Your first instinct may be to dismiss Burai’s observations about racism in Google search results. But Burai is not alone in her observations. A study done by Latanya Sweeney at Harvard University in 2013 analysed the types of advertisements that showed up on Google when certain names were searched. Sweeney found that names “typically associated with black people were more likely to produce ads related to criminal activity”. This is not just limited to racial bias. Another study looked at whether underrepresentation in Google image searches for careers could affect unconscious bias.

Has Burai reached out to Google about this?

“Many people have been asking that but I am waiting. I am not going to do that right now. I want to be more (robust) about the project before I do it and hopefully Google will take notice of the project themselves. But I do plan to contact them to see what they have to say about the project.”

Burai also doesn’t appear to blame Google for what comes up in the search results.

“People create Google. Our ideas and perceptions of things are very visible in Google and I don’t think Google can change these things. Because they only provide pictures that we are uploading on the internet. So it’s more the people in society like you and me that have to be conscious about what kind of pictures that we are reproducing.”

So this isn’t just about the pictures that we upload but just more about our thought processes about how we label them?

“Exactly. The white skin colour is seen in society as neutral so if you had to perhaps find a ‘black hand’ you would need to use more describing words like ‘African’.  

For Burai as white hands are seen as “neutral” when people see the word “hand” they automatically presume that it will be “white” when it actually could be black or brown. It is this very internal thought process that she wants to challenge. Burai’s solution is to get people to label the pictures of different ethnicities as simply “hand” without adding further details like “African” or “Asian”. She believes this will then improve the search results.

Since starting the project has Burai had people reach out with comments?

“I have – I have gotten a lot of emails from people all around the world saying this is a great project and thank you for doing this – but I have also gotten a lot of hate and threats on my name,” Burai tells me. “One racist site posted a long article about me and my project where they put up a picture of me and put out my phone number and email address and they were like: ‘You have to harass this girl’. I have been getting a lot of hate email as well.”

“Some of them are just stupid telling me to eat poison and I hope you die and things like that. But some of them are saying that I’m a racist to the white race. There is a lot of dumb people who just know nothing.”

Burai tells me that she will graduate soon and hopes to work as a Graphic Designer. Surely this project must be taking up a lot of her time?

“I’ve been working on this project for three months and it’s been a lot of work. Just to figure out how Google works and to get people to build the site”.

At the moment she is handling the project on her own but foresees a team working with her in the future. She says she would be happy to partner up with some bigger commercial studio to carry on the project.

“Right now I am in charge of the social media pages, talking to different journalists, writing emails…so it’s a lot of work to keep up with every day.”

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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