Googling "Dreadlocks" Yields These Terrible, Awful, Racist Results
Those searching Google images for a new hairstyle might be surprised to see the results for "dreadlocks."
A quick glance reveals that, out of the first three rows, only a handful of those pictured are people of color despite the hairstyle's association with communities of color — especially black Caribbean culture.
The first result, a white woman with her hair locked, comes from a YouTube tutorial on how to make dreadlocks. The second comes from a CNN article exploring whether it's racist for white people to wear them. Farther down the line, the images come from Pinterest boards depicting white people with locs.
Seeing Google results that primarily show white people wearing the hairstyle raises a red flag. Of course, the search engine's algorithm is not sentient — there's no person behind the computer weeding out people of color in the results. And sure, the caucasity might simply stem from good image tagging or search engine optimization.
But how Google and other search platforms organize, prioritize and present information about the world has consequences. In this case, it helps erase the political meaning and history behind the hairstyle, highlighting the main problem with cultural appropriation.
Earlier this year, video surfaced of a black woman confronting a white man at San Francisco State University for wearing dreadlocks. When the man with dreadlocks brings up Egyptian culture, she asks him to find Egypt on a map. The conversation then escalates to a physical confrontation.
The problem with cultural appropriation isn't that white people are wearing dreadlocks per se. As black writer Feminista Jones told CNN earlier this year, "Sure, white people can wear locs.
"For some, they have religious or spiritual meaning. For others, it's just a hairstyle," she added. "My research informed me that Indian monks wore them long before they reached the Western Hemisphere, so I'm not sure anyone has any particular claim."
It's the ignorance behind the adoption — the fact that white folks are ripping off a cultural artifact that they are totally clueless about — that is the problem. Fashion trends are symbols of cultural and economic status. Adopting one without understanding its significance is more than just a faux pas — it's unexamined privilege. Some question whether white people should wear dreadlocks at all.
As The Devil Wears Prada taught us, knowing the history of a trend is paramount when attempting to adopt it. And while almost every ancient culture sported locs at one time or another, their modern interpretation comes to us via Jamaica, where many adopted them as a way to reject Euro-centrism and embrace a non-Western set of beauty standards after their 1838 emancipation.
This is not the first time Google has gotten in trouble for producing questionable results. The difference between googling "three black teenagers" and "three white teenagers" — which turned up images of white teenagers playing sports and black teenagers posing for mugshots — put the internet giant at the center of controversy, with many questioning if their algorithm was biased.
Point: Google runs on an algorithm and doesn't have a choice. But you do. So know better and do better.