My first encounter with racism in search was in 2009 when I was talking to a friend who causally mentioned one day, “You should see what happens when you Google ‘black girls.’” I did and was stunned.
These are the details of what a search for “black girls” would yield for many years, despite that the words “porn,” “pornography,” or “sex” were not included in the search box. In the text for the first page of results, for example, the word “p-ssy,” as a noun, is used four times to describe black girls. Other words in the lines of text on the first page include “sugary” (two times), “hairy” (one), “sex” (one), “booty/ass” (two), “teen” (one), “big” (one), “porn star” (one), “hot” (one), “hard- core” (one), “action” (one), “galeries [sic]” (one).
It was troubling to realize that I had undoubtedly been confronted with the same type of results before but had learned, or been trained, to somehow become inured to it, to take it as a given that any search I might perform using keywords connected to my physical self and identity could return pornographic and otherwise disturbing results. Why was this the bargain into which I had tacitly entered with digital information tools? And who among us did not have to bargain in this way? As a black woman growing up in the late 20th-century, I also knew that the presentation of black women and girls that I discovered in my search results was not a new development of the digital age. I could see the connection between search results and tropes of African Americans that are as old and endemic to the United States as the history of the country itself. My background as a student and scholar of Black studies and Black history, combined with my doctoral studies in the political economy of digital information, aligned with my righteous indignation for black girls everywhere. That first search in 2009 launched a years-long research process, following offenses and “fixes” through 2016. I had to search on.