The Repeated Racism of Snapchat

As a startup, it can sometimes be hard to navigate the shifting sands of race, gender, and power. But some mistakes are easy to avoid.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

You are a small though extraordinarily wealthy technology company, afloat in a sea filled with other such companies. Some are larger than you, and some are wealthier. People in your industry use language that touches on noble virtues and planet-wide connection. But in practice, you profit from a society layered with different kinds of oppression and discrimination. You have to decide how to use your wealth and power in a world that consistently falls short. What is your duty?

One approach to this problem might be: Do no harm.

But that is a test that Snapchat, the makers of the extremely successful messaging app of the same name, have repeatedly failed to meet.

One of Snapchat’s more unusual features is its set of face-morphing filters. They’re essentially algorithmic funhouse mirrors: You can swipe different ways of contorting faces seen through your phone camera so that they have an enormous mouth, or a gold medal around their neck, or that make someone look like a comical pirate. In just the past six months, Snapchat has blundered (twice!) into releasing filters that it’s hard not to read as extremely racist.

This week, for instance, it debuted a filter that covered over a user’s eyes and forehead with closed-eye slants while enlarging their teeth and reddening their cheeks. The company called the feature “anime-inspired.”

A tweet from @tequilafunrise: “wanna tell me why u thought this yellowface was ok??” Two images attached to the tweet depict a woman using the filter and clip art of a yellowface caricature.
Twitter / @tequilafunrise

But as highlighted by Katie Zhu, a product manager at Medium, that set of visual clues has few roots in anime. “Anime characters are known for their angled faces, spiky and colorful hair, large eyes, and vivid facial expressions,” she wrote. Instead, the filter adopts wholesale a different visual language of representing East Asians: yellowface. Indeed, two hallmarks of yellowface are squinted eyes and buckteeth.

In a statement to press, Snapchat could not quite bring itself to a mea culpa.

“This anime-inspired lens has already expired and won’t be put back into circulation,” it said. “Lenses are meant to be playful and never to offend.”

Earlier this year, on April 20, Snapchat released a “Bob Marley” filter. The digital mask edited a knit cap and dreadlocks on users, while also darkening their skin.  That this was a kind of digital blackface—another taboo racist caricature with a long history in the United States—was evidently lost to Snapchat, an American company.

The company withdrew the filter and said it launched the software in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate.

Yellowface and blackface are not shrouded and arcane aspects of the American racial experience, marginalia known only to historians and theorists. Unlike AirBNB’s struggles with discrimination, for instance, they are neither disaggregated across users nor difficult to untangle from America’s structural racial inequality. Blackface and yellowface—especially in the simplistic form perpetrated by Snapchat—are plain and easy taboos, and for good reason. Even if Snapchat’s main audience are college kids, there are articles every October aimed at college kids documenting the perils of blackface and yellowface.

In other words: Not making a yellowface filter is like playing Don’t Be a Racist Company on the beginner setting.

One way to prevent these kind of screw-ups is to employ people of color, who can tell you if you’re about to step in it. But despite salarying more than 900 employees, Snapchat has yet to release statistics about its racial and gender breakdown. (They declined my request for these numbers again this week, on Friday.) This despite the fact that technology companies analogous to Snapchat—privately owned firms with high valuations but head counts below 1,000, like Slack and AirBNB—have released those numbers since last year.

Making these kinds of numbers public does not automatically bring change—and it has not brought change since the early 2000s, when technology companies began doing it. But it is a good-faith sign that corporate executives are taking the problem seriously. And as Zhu highlights, Evan Spiegel, the company’s CEO, was asked for these numbers last summer, and seemed game to provide them.

“I should have exact percentages for you, but we just don’t think about diversity in terms of numbers that way,” Spiegel told Walt Mossberg on stage at the Recode conference last year. “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, [we said] ‘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.”

Since then, the company has added more than 600 employees. This was a prime opportunity for Spiegel to avail himself of his own advice and hire a team that demographically resembles the country where his company is based. (Perhaps it even could have resembled the demographics of Los Angeles, where Snapchat is headquartered.) Such a move might have saved him a considerable headache—it would have helped him avoid, for instance, viral Medium essays written by well-respected leaders in the industry that call on people to delete Snapchat from their phones. We have no idea if he took advantage of it. His company declines to offer proof that he did.