The Darker Side of Social Media: Snapchat’s Race Problem

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Snapchat is one of the most used forms of social media today, used by people of all ages. Some use it for keeping in touch with family, others for documenting a night out, but recently Snapchat has had some bad publicity… is it possible that our beloved Snapchat is becoming…racist?

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Credit: theindependent.co.uk

Let me begin this article by admitting that I’ve never been a fan of Snapchat. Instagram, yes. Facebook, if I need to stalk someone sure… but Snapchat, no. It is the technological version of the oversharing aunt who insists on showing you 12,000 pictures of her holiday to Rome every Christmas. I’ve been at too many parties, dinners and casual evenings where for those present, documenting every inane moment trumps enjoying the company of the people who are actually there. However, other than in this slightly annoying sense Snapchat has never appeared anything
other than harmless – until I began to pay attention to the more recent controversy that has been surrounding it.

In light of Snapchat’s most recent race controversy I decided to research whether Snapchat had suffered any other race related controversy since its launch in 2011.  Snapchat’s problem with race begins and ends with its filters. Whimsical, digital masks which most commonly feature vibrant head pieces, animals and face altering. This race favouritism is obvious in many of its filters, which tend to feature face-whitening, most noticeably in the hippy-esque flower crown feature Snapchat offers.

However, two particular filters, ‘Bob Marley’ and ‘Anime’,  have caused waves across the internet because of their striking resemblance to ‘blackface’ and ‘yellow face’. Historically, these terms have been controversial, and more recently condemned by many, because both terms deny people of colour the right to represent themselves in the media and simultaneously demean the race in question.

American actress and singer Judy Garland (1922 - 1969) in blackface as Judy Bellaire in 'Everybody Sing', 1938. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
American actress and singer Judy Garland  in blackface in ‘Everybody Sing’, 1938. (Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The term ‘black face’ goes as far back as white minstrel shows in the 1800s, where white men would darken their faces with cork and perform jigs and continued on into the cinema of the 20th century. While, blackface in Hollywood most commonly portrayed black men and women as unkempt watermelon scoffing creatures with thick lips, wide protruding mouths and bulbous eyes.

So, when the Bob Marley filter featured a blackened face alongside the formulaic dreadlock and Rasta colours commonly used to represent the popular late singer, there was, understandably, an outpouring of anger across social media.

Similarly, the controversial ‘yellow face’ filter was supposed to be aimed at Anime fans, so that Snapchat users could transform into their favorite Japanese comic book character. However, as pointed out by many on the internet the filter was far more reminiscent of the figure of a ‘Gook’, a derogatory caricature of a South East Asian person. This image can be traced back to the Vietnam War where a ‘Gook’ represented a stereotypical Vietcong member; an invisible, quasi-supernatural sadist luring Americans into bamboo spiked booby traps. Since, then this particular form of yellow face has been used to deride Asian people on stage, screen and now on social media via snapchat.

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Before and after (Credit: fox26houston.com)

Snapchat’s silence on its recent controversies have only fueled the fire for critics. While the picture sharing app swiftly removed the offensive ‘anime’ app in August in light of complaints on twitter, they still haven’t made any assurances that their filters will be free of ‘yellow face’ or ‘black face’ filters in the future. And unfortunately, Snapchat has also not released an official statement regarding any of its other race-related scandals. Is Snapchat inherently racist? Maybe not, but increasingly it is becoming a platform in which racism is able to thrive.

More articles in The Darker Side of Social Media
  1. The Darker Side of Social Media: Snapchat’s Race Problem
  2. The Darker Side of Social Media: The Lighter Side of Life
  3. The Darker Side of Social Media: Effects on Employability
  4. The Darker Side of Social Media: Cyberbullying
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Feminist, human rights activist and annoying leftie. I write about anything and everything that interests me.

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