A few days ago, as I was looking for stock photos related to healthcare or teamwork to use with this blog, I noticed that on the first few sites I checked, all the pictures with people in them only contained white people. Only when I searched for photos with “diversity” tags did I find any people of color.
To be fair, there is a good bit of variation among the stock photo sites, and I was limiting my search to free photos. So I probably wasn’t seeing the best that every site had to offer. Still, even sites with more diverse photo subjects sometimes labeled them in a way that reflected “mainstream,” or majority, assumptions about who does what.
I noticed at freeimages.com that a search for “business meeting” resulted in white subjects, but there were black subjects if I included black in my search. On pixabay, my search for “hospital” photos yielded no people of color. The search for “doctors” resulted in no doctors of color, but the search for”business meetings” did show business people of color.
Nearly all the “business” or “hospital” photos on the pexels site that include any people show white people. I did find a few with people of color, but the faces are obscured, cut off, or out of focus. Although partial views and lack of focus may be common with stock photos, it seemed relevant to me that all of the minority subjects, but not all the white subjects,, fell into that category. In fairness, I must note that the sponsored photos from shutterstock.com at the bottom of the pexels page were more inclusive, though I don’t believe they are free.
It’s interesting to note how photos are tagged as well as how they are titled. A search for hospitals on freedigitalphotos.net gave me some pretty diverse results, where the photos were titled with gender but mostly not by race or ethnicity The tagging usually included race or ethnicity.
Now, why does this matter? Because in what passes for discussion of race on social media (which reflects a good bit of American life), there is a lot of misunderstanding. Just look at the to-do last year over Black Lives Matter. Many white people thought that #BlackLivesMatter meant “only black lives matter.” In reality, it meant, “We’re opposing killings of black people by police, who act as if those black lives don’t matter.” See this discussion on quora for a good summary. And be sure to scroll down to see the white man with the sign.
You might wonder how stock photos are related to police violence. My answer: The majority culture defines what “normal” is. When a photo of business people includes only white people, it reflects as assumption that the target audience, the viewer or reader, is white.
But it’s just one picture…
Any individual photograph, taken alone, may not be significant. But when the images of business people or professionals in the media are only of white people, it’s easy for white people to assume they’re the only ones who run businesses, and people of color do not see themselves reflected in those images. If all the photos tagged “doctor” are of white men, the unspoken assumption is that all doctors are white men. And when photos of female doctors are titled “lady doctor,” the implication is that women doctors are unusual, while male doctors are the norm.
The cumulative effect of these limited images is that it can limit our thinking. This is especially true for children, who need to see role models who look like them. And all of us need to see doctors, lawyers, professors, and business people of all genders, colors, and cultures. Because that’s the world we want to see.