Snapchat is a prime example of what happens when you don’t have enough people of color building a product.
Yesterday, in the Audacity of Whiteness, Snapchat released a blatantly racist yellowface filter that excessively slants your eyes, rounds cheeks, and adds buckteeth for good measure. The company maintains this filter is “anime-inspired.”
That’s doubtful. Anime characters are known for their angled faces, spiky and colorful hair, large eyes, and vivid facial expressions.
This is quite literally yellowface, a derogatory and offensive caricature of Asians.
Snapchat faced a similar controversy less than four months ago, when they thought it was a good idea to create a Bob Marley filter on 420 (an unofficial holiday celebrating cannabis on April 20), which gave users dreadlocks and digital blackface.
And even for those filters that aren’t as overtly offensive, they subtly reinforce white superiority and reveal the lack of diversity in the product’s creators. Many of the lenses (flower crown, butterfly crown) whitewash users’ skin and lighten their eye color.
All of these examples, while baffling, do not come as a particular surprise. Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel spoke on the company’s diversity in an interview with Recode last summer:
Mossberg: Can you describe your diverse group of people? I mean, what are some of the percentages, if you have them?
Spiegel: 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.” Because it’s not really cool to think of people as numbers. We think about people and diverse skill sets. We’re 300 people now; we were 30 people a year and a half ago. We’ve been really mindful that, as we grow, we need to hire diverse folks, and so I’m sure we’ll have specific numbers to share at some point, but it’s been a part of our growth.
I’ve deleted Snapchat. I’d urge you to do the same. They’ve repeatedly demonstrated their blasé attitude towards issues of diversity, inclusion, and representation. I don’t know what their diversity numbers look like, but even if there are people of color working there: (a) they’re clearly not in positions where they feel comfortable speaking up, or (b) their input isn’t valued at the same level as some white male exec who says, “Hey, you know what would be chill? A yellowface filter, but let’s call it anime.”
Thankfully, Instagram now has a Snapchat Stories clone so I’ll still be able to take mundane pictures of my day-to-day life.
Tech is full of white male elites, and without people of color both present and occupying positions of power and decision-making, our future will only continue to get more white.