Critics see Snapchat as having no filter on racial stereotypes

Social media site, Snapchat, is yet again under fire for debuting a filter many users called racist. Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

Snapchat, the popular social network that allows users to share video clips and photos in temporary timelines, has come under fire for a feature that critics are calling racist, and it's not the first time.

The app unveiled a filter that let users distort their faces in a manner that the company said was meant to convey the appearance of Japanese anime characters, but instead was seen as promoting stereotypes of Asians and "yellowface." A swift, online backlash prompted Snapchat to remove the filter.

Critics pointed out the filter looks very little like traditional Japanese anime characters, who are often depicted with oversized, bright eyes. Julia Carrie Wong of The Guardian noted the filter is more reminiscent of historical anti-Asian propaganda that "replaces eyes with slits."

The current Snapchat filter backlash comes four months after the company removed a controversial Bob Marley filter. The feature debuted on April 20, a day known as an informal holiday celebrating marijuana, which has no official connection to the Jamaican reggae legend. Outraged users chided the social network for promoting blackface and reducing the world-renowned musician to a weed-smoking stereotype.

"My first reaction literally was, 'Not again,'" says Arisha Hatch, managing director of campaigns for Color of Change, an advocacy group that challenges tech companies to be more racially inclusive. "What's so surprising is that Asians are typically overrepresented in the tech industry, so the opportunity for an employee or anyone to say 'this is not right' should have been there."

"They're sending the message that it's ok to mock and stereotype marginalized people for how they look, dress and sound." — Arisha Hatch, Color of Change

While most of Snapchat's popular face-altering options depict ghosts and puppies, users have also criticized the "beauty" filters that could be seen as promoting light skin and European facial features. Pop star Rihanna even voiced concern that the filters drastically change her appearance. "I look white," she said in one clip. In a second video posted by a friend, she questions, "Whose nose is that and why are my eyes crossed?"

Hatch says filters like the ones that (questionably) depict Bob Marley and Japanese anime, as well as ones that make users appear more white, show a lack of awareness by Snapchat as to how such imagery has historical context. She says these depictions have been used to dehumanize minority communities for centuries and continues today.

"They're sending the message that it's OK to mock and stereotype marginalized people for how they look, dress and sound," Hatch says. "And that affects how a person of color is perceived when they're profiled on the street, apply for a job or try to get a loan."

When contacted, Snapchat did not return emailed requests for an interview or statement on on how it plans to address issues of race and representation. They have also declined multiple requests from media and advocacy groups to release details on the demographic makeup of its more than 300 employees.

However, in a statement to The Verge, Snapchat said the filter has been taken down, and that it "won't be put back into circulation."

"Snapchat tells The Verge that the lens was inspired by anime, and was meant to be playful."

– The Verge

Hatch says being consistently tone deaf on race can't be blamed on innocent, playful intentions.

"Intentions don't erase the impact," Hatch said, "And the impact is hurtful and damaging for people of color who see themselves dehumanized for fun. It shows that merely hiring more people of color is only part of the solution for tech companies. Educating themselves on culture, racism and history is vital as well."

Tech companies are grappling with widespread criticism for lack of diversity. According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, less than 10 percent of Silicon Valley staff are African-American or Hispanic. And social media networks are facing mounting backlash for hands-off approaches to racism toward high-profile users. Most recently, comedian Leslie Jones and Fifth Harmony singer Normani Kordei announced social media hiatuses over harassment from trolls geared toward their race and gender.

Latinos and blacks "use social media networks about equally" as whites, according to Pew Research Center. And with two recent controversies over racially insensitive filters, Hatch says Snapchat, like other networks, may begin to feel the effects where it will hurt them most: engagement and revenue.

"Twitter and Facebook are already learning that when you continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes that impact the majority of your consumers, fail to listen to their complaints of harassment, and are seemingly insincere about incorporating them into your own staff, you'll see it affect your growth," Hatch said. "It's only a matter of time before Snapchat realizes that too."

READ MORE: The problem with Snapchat's Bob Marley filter goes beyond blackface

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