Three Black Teenagers: Is Google Racist?

It's not them, it's us.

Google has been accused - again - of being racist. This guy's viral video post shows why:

At face value it would appear the search behemoth is promoting a healthy vibrant image of white teens against a crime-riddled version of their black counterparts.

Even when replicating the simple test ourselves, the results appear conclusive.

Three black teenagers...
Three black teenagers...
Three white teenagers.
Three white teenagers.

The "white" version even appears to have three black teen mugshots for contrast.

So what's going on? Rampant racial bias from the world's largest search engine?

Well no. Google essentially reflects the internet and what people post and look for the most.

Any biases in search results actually come from us rather than any search engine (similar results happen in Bing for example).

Relevant to this specific example, Antoine Speaks created a brilliant little explainer video a couple of months ago.

In it he Googles both phrases and explains the results. With the "white" teenagers, there are mostly stock images of happy-looking white trios and one of a teen in handcuffs in a courtroom.

Antoine says: "[These] are images people are actually going to buy. The reasons there are lots of them is there are lots of white people in Europe and America so there's going to be more opportunities to buy images of friendly-looking white teenagers so they're going to get pushed to the top of the search results.

"Now I'm going to type in 'three black teenagers' and what you get is a list of crimes committed by black teenagers. That's just the nature of Google, the most-typed thing will go to the top.

"In the images it's just black people who have committed crimes. It's less likely that businesses will want to buy an image of three black people because the demographic of our society is, in the West, there are more white people."

So there are two forces at play here. Firstly the commercial desire to buy and sell images that will make money and secondly a media bias to publish stories about violent crime that are more likely to be published and shared.

Because the demand for stock images of black teens is relatively low, this creates space for the other demand - that of violent crimes - to move up the rankings.

Another (depressing) example of Google reflecting societal attitudes comes from a simple autosuggestion experiment.


In April BuzzFeed UK published an excellent in-depth look into the phenomenon which is well worth a read.

A Google spokesperson told HuffPost UK: "Our image search results are a reflection of content from across the web, including the frequency with which types of images appear and the way they’re described online.

"This means that sometimes unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject matter online can affect what image search results appear for a given query.

"These results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs -- as a company, we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures."

Antoine goes on to explain how people can change what appears when you type "three black teenagers".

  1. Start a campaign pushing google to change the order of the search results. However, what really would be the point of this? How many people type actually regularly “Three Black Teenagers” into google? Barely anyone! Moreover, it wouldn’t mean the mugshots of people whom have committed crimes would disappear. They would simply be replaced with the same fake/model images that appear for “Three white teenagers”.
  2. Instead start sharing, searching and making more positive stories about black teenagers. Ie if there were more stories of black teenagers doing well or positive news they would be higher up in the search results. This is the best and my preferred strategy of working towards changing the perception of Black teenagers/people.

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