Harriet Tubman: Why Google Doodles Matter (Updated)

In a rare move, the Google Doodle today features a black woman, Harriet Tubman, to mark the start of Black History Month.

Tubman Google Doodle



In case you’re not familiar with the illustrations featured on the Google search page, Google Doodles are intended to be “fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.” They’re also notoriously known for their sexism.  Shelby Knox has a Google Doodle Sexism Watch.  Amadi has also noted the way gender, race, and class are drawn into the Doodles, as in her critique of the father’s day images that “reinforce stereotypical western societal stereotypes and privileged class mores with repeated depictions of white, middle+ class men who are only engaged with their kids during playtime.”

This is only the second time, to my knowledge, that the Google Doodle has ever featured a black woman.   (Updated via RUBÉN G. RUMBAUT, Professor of Sociology, UC-Irvine who wrote to say: “There are a lot more if you just take the time to search for them in the Doodle.”  Professor Rumbaut mentions the previous illustrations honoring (South African singer) Miriam Makeba’s 81st birthday, (Cuban American singer) Celia Cruz’s 88th birthday, (African American singer) Ella Fitzgerald’s 96th birthday, and (African American Civil Rights Leader) Rosa Parks, on the 55th Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. JD: Thanks for the correction, we aim for precision here. I think the larger point stands that these few women of color are still vastly underrepresented among those chosen for a Google Doodle. )

Earlier this year when they honored the great American author and anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston with an illustration.

Zora Neale Hurston


Where do the doodles come from? 

Google was founded by two guys from Stanford, Larry Page and Sergei Brin. According to the Stanford Magazine, the origin of the doodles happened like this:

The first Google doodle appeared in 1998, when Brin and Page decided to leave the company untended for a couple of days while they attended the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Brin put a little stick figure emblematic of the event on the Google logo as a clue to where they were. Users loved it, and soon the company hired an outside graphic artist to come up with other simple cartoons to mark special events.

Dennis Hwang is the artist behind most of the illustrations, from the same story:

Hwang’s original job involved straightforward programming chores, but soon he was charged with posting those doodles and “cleaning them up,” in programming parlance, so they looked better. After his modification of a Fourth of July doodle caught the founders’ attention, word of Hwang’s art experience and his talent got around. Pretty soon, Hwang became the official doodler, completing about 50 doodles a year.

But, it’s not Hwang who decides on who will be honored.  He’s following the directives he’s given from others:

About once a quarter, a group of executives get together to map out a calendar of doodle-worthy dates. Page and Brin have the final say, and they sometimes approve spontaneous drawings, such as when a Mars Rover landed. Hwang creates the images, using an electronic tablet and stylus for his sketches. The doodles are fun, usually whimsical—and sometimes baffling. Know about Gaston Julia, for example? Visitors to Google on February 3, 2004, saw the Google logo with a hurricane-shaped “o” against a backdrop of equations to celebrate the French mathematician’s birthday.

The Doodles then, offer a kind of insight the values of the executives at Google, one of the key shapers of Internet culture.  Some enterprising young graduate student could do a mighty fine dissertation offering an analysis of all the Google Doodles ever published for what these tell us about Google, Internet culture, and American society.

Do Google Doodles matter? 

There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens with Google Doodles. When they appear, they drive the news cycle, and the news about that person.  Recently,  Ian Steadman writing at The Guardian, offered an analysis of the way the Google Doodle about Simone de Beauvoir. Steadman makes a strong case that these are “clickbait” that’s capable of altering the news cycle. In the trajectory of contemporary news cycles, it’s the Doodle, not de Beauvoir herself, that becomes the real news story,  These articles are all basically the same, Steadman writes, “Simone de Beauvoir’s in a Google Doodle, and here’s a few paragraphs outlining who she was and why she deserves it.”

Steadman says what’s important to pay attention to are the incentives that digital journalists are confronted with. What matters in online journalism is the speed of publication, not necessarily the quality, because that correlates to the greater number of shares or clicks which is how the economy of Internet advertising works.  He continues to explain the way this works:

The algorithms that Google’s News page uses also rely on the size and perceived readership of the sites it features, along with the number of articles it puts out a day, along with other factors, to decide which stories to promote and which to ignore. In the case of Google Doodles, we can see the emergence of a symbiotic relationship: Google’s choice of a person or topic gives newspapers an easy topic to cover with guaranteed interest from a key source of traffic, keeping them near the top of the News rankings for other topics; while Google gets traffic to its services from people made aware of its cute little commemorative cartoon or game.

In other words, drives business to its other products through the use of the Doodles. The power of Google Doodles is their ability to shape Internet conversations is what’s at stake here.  Again, Steadman nails this:

Google, then, creates the news (or at least some news), and has the ability to raise awareness about niche topics or person who are perhaps not particularly well catered for by the media most of the time.

Google has a real power to raise awareness about the many lesser known heroes of American culture, many of whom are black women, and other people of color. The Doodles of Tubman and Hurston may be just two isolated disruptions in the otherwise all male, mostly white pantheon of those deemed worthy of an illustration from the Internet giant Google. Or, it could be the start of a trend in the right direction. Only time, and the next Doodle, will tell.





John Brown’s Birthday: Remembering Anti-Slavery Revolutionaries

[This is a repeat of a May 9, 2010 posting on this, the birthday of John Brown–an important US revolutionary who died, with his black and white colleagues, fighting for the freedom of enslaved African Americans. Brown has gotten more attention from historians in recent years, yet is still little known outside advanced history books. It is time to recover this history for all Americans.]

David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece last year noting that this December 2009 marked the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)

Today, one needed step in the antiracist educational cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to these abolitionist heroes?

Seeing Racial Bias: Barry Dunham vs. Barack Obama

A new study suggests that names significantly change our perception of a person’s face and their racial identity.

Indeed, if Barack Obama had taken his mother’s last name, Dunham, and used the first name common in his earlier in life, Barry, people today might have a very different perception of him.   The study, called “Barack Obama or Barry Dunham?” and conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales, set out to test the hypothesis that the presence of racially-suggestive names would influence participants’ perception of identical multiracial faces (image from here) .

Participants were shown a face and name for 3 seconds, then asked to rate the appearance of the face on a 9-point scale, where 1=”very Asian-looking” and 9=”very European-looking.”   The researchers found that the study participants rated multi-racial faces with European names as looking significantly “more European” than exactly the same faces when given Asian names.  In an interview, one of the researchers, Kirin Hilliar a UNSW PhD student, summarizes the study’s significance this way:

“The study reveals how socially derived expectations and stereotypes can influence face perception.  The result is consistent with other research findings suggesting that once people categorize a face into a racial group, they look for features consistent with that categorization.”

This sort of research seems to lend credibility to the importance of cognitive frames for shaping our thinking about race.    And indeed, this study seems to go beyond this to suggest that these cognitive frames are so powerful they even shape the way we see people.   We tend to see physical characteristics through a frame that selectively highlights certain attributes and codes those as racial signifiers.  This is important for sociologists and other scholars because many of our basic research relies on old notions of “race” as defined by a “group of people who share similar physical characteristics” (as the intro text I’m currently using defines it).   This leads to all sorts of logical fallacies about “shared characteristics” rooted in biology that simply don’t hold up to rigorous investigation or when examined in light of historical context (e.g., recall that the Irish and the Italians were once regarded as “biologically distinct” from white Americans).   “Race” is a social construct that we learn to see through a number of cultural cues including names.

Re-Framing Poli Sci Textbooks

Inside Higher Ed has a good piece today (written by  Scott Jaschik) about a study that explores the portrayal of black folks in Political Science textbooks.  The study by the American Political Science Association’s Standing Committee on the Status of Blacks in the Profession. The study appears in the January 2008 issue of PS: Political Science & Politics.  Here is a snippet from Inside Higher Ed:

The committee reviewed 27 textbooks used in intro courses, and published or in circulation (in many cases as updated editions of previously issued versions) from 2004 to 2007. Of those texts, 74 percent had a chapter on civil rights, 19 percent combine civil rights and civil liberties, and 7 percent had no specific chapter. For those books with a civil rights chapter, the average number of pages with references to black issues outside of that chapter is 13 — not a large number on books that averaged 569 pages.

‘Our analysis reveals that African Americans’ active participation in America’s political development has been treated as a separate entity from the rest of the country’s development…. [T]extbooks do not discuss African Americans as active agents (if at all) until the civil rights movement, when they are discussed as collective “recipients” of government action,’ says a report on the study by Sherri L. Wallace, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, and Marcus D. Allen, an assistant professor at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

In part, the study attributes the relative absence of black people from the texts as reflecting a larger bias in the discipline, in favor of powerful government institutions over less officially powerful (but in many cases extremely important) social movements. “Because political science as a discipline typically studies institutions and elites as decision-makers, it thereby largely ignores the presence and questions of African-American politics,” the report says. One example from the study: If you are searching for an image of a black woman in one of these texts, the person you are most likely to find is Condoleezza Rice.

Although this study focuses on poli sci textbooks, I think an enterprising scholar could replicate this study using intro sociology textbooks and likely come up with similar results.  Given Joe’s work on the white racial frame, it’s interesting that the piece concludes by talking about “new frames” that textbooks should consider adding, such as:

  • The evolution of political parties’ views on slavery.
  • A focus on “race and racial issues in a global context,” noting the interactions among various racial and ethnic groups.
  • Using “the lens of race and ethnicity” more in consideration of political issues.
  • Citing more work by black scholars.

While these are important shifts, I think they don’t go nearly far enough and suggest an internal inconsistency.  If Condoleeza Rice is a troubling image of African-American women in politics,  suggesting that textbook authors are doing something transformative by merely citing more work by black scholars seems a necessary, but not completely sufficient step toward using a “different frame.”   Still, it looks to be a significant study and serves as an example that other disciplines should follow.