Snapchat Doesn't Think Its 'Yellowface' Filter Is Racist

Sorry, racism doesn’t disappear in five seconds.

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Aug 10 2016, 8:01pm

Images: mhroque; bkisnah; tequilahfunrise

We can all agree that Snapchat filters have four primary objectives: to make you look hotter, uglier, fun, or weird as shit. But you know what they shouldn't do? Paint you as a racist caricature ripped straight out of World War II propaganda.

Apparently, Snapchat hasn't gotten that memo. Yesterday, the four-year-old company was called out by Twitter users for its derogatory "anime" filter that layered slanted eyes, buckteeth, and rounded cheeks over people's faces, according to Mic. Snapchat has removed the lens, but its digital imprint left many Asians and Asian Americans feeling like targets of casual racism.

Image: Twitter

"It makes me angry and very uncomfortable. If you Google 'caricature of an Asian person,' you'll get squinty eyes, and buckteeth. It's meant to be derogatory," Grace Sparapani, an incoming graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, told me after tweeting about her experience with the filter.

If you're not familiar with anti-Asian stereotypes, here's a quick primer. If something looks like Mickey Rooney in his most contemptible role, "Mr. Yunioshi," it's probably racist. If it features narrowed eyes, a pointed straw hat, or comically yellow skin, it's probably racist. And, perhaps most importantly, if Asians perceive it as racist, you can bet on it being racist.

A spokesperson for the company said Snapchat's "anime-inspired lens" was among several new filters that went up yesterday, and has since expired. When I inquired about its obvious "yellowface" appearance, I was told something similar to the quote provided to Mashable, that "lenses are meant to be playful and never to offend."

Here's the thing, though. It's difficult, if not impossible, to find anime characters resembling Snapchat's skeptical interpretation. None of the genre's typical features, such as colorful hair, disproportionately large eyes, or angular faces, seem to be referenced by the filter.

"After Ghost in the Shell, [a film adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a leading role], people have been saying that anime has a certain look, and that it's fine for white people to play anime characters because there's a very specific look," Sparapani added.

"For one, anime comes out of Asian countries. Its characters are modeled after Asian features, or those idealized by Asian communities."

I asked Snapchat which of its staff are responsible for creating its lenses, and how they're approved before going live, but did not receive an answer.

Today's fuck-up isn't young money naiveté, and it's important not to view it as such. Less than four months ago, the app launched a Bob Marley filter, in celebration of 4/20, that was interpreted by many as digital blackface. According to Snapchat, the filter was created in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate. However, the image was condemned by critics as a reductive misrepresentation of an entire culture and personal legacy.

In the past, the company's co-founder, Evan Spiegel, has been notoriously cagey when asked about diversity numbers. On stage at Recode's Code conference last year, Spiegel replied to a question about Snapchat's minority percentages by saying: "Again, this is sort of the challenge, and I should have exact percentages for you but we just don't think about diversity in terms of numbers that way. And I think that one of the perks of being a really small company is, from the beginning, we got to think about diversity, so we didn't end up with a situation where, 10 years down the line, 'Oh my gosh, I need to fix my numbers.'"

For the tech industry, none of this is foreign territory or surprising, really. From the quiet racism that's endemic to Silicon Valley, to the shallow attempts to appease women and POC, tech is still a well-fortified bastion for white male elites.

If anything, today's occurrence is a good reminder that without minority voices, our techno-future will be a very white one, indeed.

"Racism on social media isn't anything new. It's just been formalized in a Snapchat filter," said Sparapani. "You just made racism easier."