‘Hey Google, our breasts aren’t sexual’

Protesters gathered in Durban to challenge Google’s restrictions on cultural content and to force it to rethink its guidelines on nudity, arguing this policy perpetuates racist views about certain African cultural practices. (Photo:TV Yabantu)

Protesters gathered in Durban to challenge Google’s restrictions on cultural content and to force it to rethink its guidelines on nudity, arguing this policy perpetuates racist views about certain African cultural practices. (Photo:TV Yabantu)

Nobukhosi Mtshali felt a little lost when she first arrived in Johannesburg. She was beginning a degree in education at Wits University, and Johannesburg felt a world away from where she grew up, just outside Pietermaritzburg. Here, in the big city, it was hard to find space to express her traditions and culture.

“In Joburg, people say, wow, that’s different, no we don’t do that. It was a shock at first,” she told the Mail & Guardian.

For example, on Heritage Day, there were a lot of women walking around with traditional clothes, she says. “But everyone had their breasts covered. But at a traditional gathering at home I could walk around with my breasts uncovered. In Joburg, if I did that, it would be a mess. It’s almost like we’ve been told that we have to cover up, that we are backward.”

Now four years into her degree, Mtshali has found her place in the city. She has conversations with her friends about their cultural differences - and similarities - and she has also joined Gauteng-based cultural societies.

“We get together, we do dance practises, we sing songs … We do the Reed Dance together. Not only are we learning about our culture and traditions, things we wouldn’t normally receive through mainstream culture, but you interact with other girls so you know you’re not alone in your view and how you are.”

[The Reed Dance. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP]

Like most university students, Mtshali and her friends are active on social media, and they would enthusiastically share images and videos of themselves singing and dancing on sites like YouTube and Facebook.

But they noticed that something strange was happening to many of the videos that showed their bare breasts: they were being marked as “age-restricted” by YouTube, or taken down entirely, as if the content was somehow sexual in nature.

“The last Reed Dance, we got all excited, we wanted to show off. I could tell you that half of the girls…say their images had been taken down. You get this message saying your images are inappropriate,” she said.

For Mtshali this is a direct attack on her culture - and also a threat to the longevity of its traditions. “As black South Africans, we’ve always been told our culture is uncivilised, our culture is backward. Because of social media platforms reinforcing these stereotypes it becomes harder. As a young person why would you want to celebrate something that is constantly being mocked on social media platforms?”

Mtshali and her friends are not alone. Lazi Dlamini is the head of TV Yabantu, an online video production company that aims to produce content that “protects, preserves and restores African values”. The TV Yabantu YouTube channel launched in 2016, and it caught on quick, adding 3000-4000 new subscribers every month

And then, beginning in April last year, YouTube started slapping age restrictions on cultural content that featured bare-breasted women. Over 50 videos were affected. Viewer and subscriber numbers plummeted because the channel was now much harder to access.

At the same time, this content was labelled as “not suitable for most advertisers”, which hit TV Yabantu’s bottom line. Although the restrictions were applied haphazardly - some videos were deemed inappropriate, while others with similar content were left alone - the impact was significant.

“They started removing advertising from our videos, then the views started dropping, the revenues started dropping,” said Dlamini. “We don’t care about the revenues, we care about the insult to our culture.”

He contacted Google, which owns YouTube, to try and explain that his context was not inappropriate, but simply reflected the cultural values of his community. But Google didn’t buy it: they said the content violated the platform’s community standards, according to Dlamini.

“You talk about community standards, but you’re only talking about western community, not African community. But they did not engage with that. They just said these are our standard terms, if you don’t like it then you don’t have to use the platform,” said Dlamini.

Working with more than 200 cultural groupings across the country and in neighbouring Swaziland, Dlamini is organising a series of protests against Google to force them to rethink their position.

The first took place in Durban on Saturday, attracting around one hundred people, including at least a dozen women who posed bare-breasted with placards that read “Google a racist” and “My breasts are not inappropriate”.

On Thursday, Dlamini also sent a letter to Google, on behalf of TV Yabantu, slamming the company for its “cultural chauvinism” and its “eurocentric norms and practices”. He said Google used these platforms to “ruthlessly” enforce “racist policies and censorship on Africans” and especially degraded African women.

“You are an organisation that perpetrates racism, and oppression of black people, beliefs, culture and values.”

The Mail & Guardian contacted Google South Africa for comment, but the company did not respond in time to questions.

YouTube’s community guidelines on nudity state:

“A video that contains nudity or other sexual content may be allowed if the primary purpose is educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic, and it isn’t gratuitously graphic. For example, a documentary on breast cancer would be appropriate, but posting clips out of context from the same documentary might not be…In cases where videos do not cross the line, but still contain sexual content, we may apply an age-restriction so that only viewers over a certain age can view the content.”

For Mtshali, these community guidelines are not good enough. She said that in the modern world, when it is difficult enough already to cling on to traditions, Google is making it even harder.

“I, as a South African, want to celebrate my culture. Having my photos labelled as inappropriate or regarded as porn, I take that as a direct attack on my cultural heritage. I take it as a sign of ignorance. If I’m posing in a sexually suggestive manner that is one thing, but if I’m posting pictures of me standing there in my traditional attire, that is a completely different context,” she said.

“It gets so frustrating, so maddening to talk about it. You can shake your boobs in a music video and it’s fine, because its normalised. But you see a woman just standing there with their boobs out and then, oh, it’s offensive.”

Update: Subsequent to publication, the M&G received the following from a representative for Google: “Google says it has lifted the restriction on the videos that were age-restricted as it is not its policy to restrict nudity in such instances where it is culturally or traditionally appropriate.”

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