Snapchat’s at it again. As first reported by The Verge and Mic, the ephemeral snapping app adored by millennials yesterday released a filter that superimposes stereotypical Asian features onto peoples’ faces, including slanted shut eyes. Many people, predictably, found this to be quite offensive. (The cartoon figure also looks to be carrying a bayonet…for some reason.)
.@Snapchat wanna tell me why u thought this yellowface was ok?? pic.twitter.com/sgpW4AFPsE
— grace (@tequilafunrise) August 9, 2016
Needless to say, the outrage spilled over on Twitter. Snapchat, which just four months ago was called out for another filter that celebrated 420 by superimposing Bob Marley dreadlocks and a digital blackface on photos, quickly took the “yellowface” filter down and apologized. According to a company spokesperson, the lens was meant to pay tribute to the popularity of anime, and won’t be circulated again. But what Snapchat just proved is that it blatantly doesn’t get what the problem is with yellowface. Just like it didn’t get what the problem was with blackface a few months ago. And that reveals how short-sighted the company is on these issues.
For Snapchat, experimenting with filters is good for business. They prove the company’s value for advertisers as a creative way to let brands insert themselves in conversations that don’t alienate teens. The more filters people use, the more likely they’ll be to download a lens sponsored by a brand, like the Target-branded filter that’s live right now. OK. So far so good. But this filter wasn’t about a brand. It serves no discernible purpose–but it does normalize racial prejudice.
And the fact that the company targeted Asians is particularly tone-deaf, given the growing discussion in America about the insidiousness of Asian racism in mainstream media. (Check out the #myyellowfacestory hashtag on Twitter if you haven’t already.) Many advocates have been highlighting this issue, including the comedian Aziz Ansari, who recently sought to shed light on how many Asian roles are played by white people in Hollywood–something that is itself a form of yellowface. Dating back to the beginning of cinema, Asian roles have been disproportionately played by white actors (the most high-profile example of this, of course, is Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) but the trend continues to this day, with films like last year’s Aloha, which cast Emma Stone as an Asian, to the upcoming film The Great Wall, which will star Matt Damon. And others in Hollywood, it seems, are still comfortable making jokes about Asians that they would not for other races or ethnicities. Two prominent examples of this were Chris Rock’s jokes at the Oscars this year, and Amy Schumer’s questionable use of stereotypical sound effects (video below). “Yellowface has almost always been derogatory and demeaning, usually intentionally,” says Frank H. Wu, chairman of the Committee of 100, an organization that focuses on issues important to the Chinese-American community.
The problem of racism against Asian Americans is nuanced. “It’s hard for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans to raise issues of civil rights and diversity because we’re perceived as perpetual foreigners, not real Americans, or we’re the ‘model minority,'” says Wu. “We don’t have any ‘real’ problems or issues to complain about.” Because of this reputation, Asian Americans are often considered safe targets for jokes (which usually flick at how “overly upstanding” or “so smart” they are), because the jokes point out traits that are considered “good.” Even in the tech industry, where diversity numbers are all but a joke, Asians are an over-represented group, contributing the notion that it’s OK to stereotype them. Snapchat hasn’t released numbers on its employee diversity, and CEO Evan Spiegel has said that’s partially because the company doesn’t “think about diversity in terms of numbers that way.”
“I’m sure [Snapchat has] lots of Asian employees,” says entrepreneur Anil Dash. “The question is about why they’re either not comfortable speaking up or couldn’t anticipate this issue. Put another way: we haven’t been effective in holding companies accountable.”
.@Snapchat pay me two million dollars a year and i can tell you if a new filter is racist or not before you release it
— Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen) August 10, 2016
hi snapchat if you want to hire me and pay me silicon valley money to tell you if filters are racist or not i can totally do that job
— Dunkirk Trailer (@DavidUzumeri) August 10, 2016
Here’s what someone–anyone–should have pointed out in the pitch meeting for this filter: it’s easy to tell if something is racist. Does it paint any race in broad strokes or stereotypes? Ding ding ding. This kind of thing projects specific (and often unrealistic) expectations onto groups of people–when we should be giving all the dignity of being an individual–which limits those folks’ potential in social and economic mobility. There is nothing playful about it, as Snapchat has suggested after getting hit with backlash today. Yes, there’s a gradation of racial images and remarks, going from subtle to not-so-subtle–but either way, these pave the way and make it easier for people to be bigoted. “It’s not about intent, but effect,” says Wu. Nor is this any real kind of homage to anime. Anime history and culture is vibrant and deep, and can’t be reduced to a single image of closed eyes, a narrow mouth, and rosy cheeks.
What Snapchat did, unwittingly or not, by releasing this yellowface filter is join a chorus of voices that have made racism against Asians in particular seem acceptable. Snapchat is not alone in this. But it wields specific influence with the most impressionable members of our society: young people, who count the app as among their most used. American culture is waking up, if slowly, to the harm in yellowface and blackface and the racist history and demeaning value judgments they imply. Snapchat runs the risk of being the last one to get that message.
Update on 08/10/2016 6:30PM ET: Updated with additional comments from Frank Wu.