Why Do All the Snapchat Filters Try to Make You Look White?

We talked to experts about Snapchat's filters and their implicit racial bias.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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The camera, a tool typically valued for its ability to capture the photographer’s perspective has, in its very construction, also implicitly privileged certain images, bodies, and stories over others. Kodak infamously used Shirley cards, images of white women, to calibrate their film, establishing white skin as the standard and, as Syreeta McFadden writes, “all other [skin] colors as deviations from the norm.” Today, Snapchat, one of the most popular messaging and photo-sharing apps, continues to establish white characteristics as normative through its lenses feature. Lenses allow users to try on a number of different personas including a dog mask, a Coachella flower headband, and even each other’s faces. While many lenses are innocuous and playful, some lighten skin, narrow noses, enlarge eyes, and change users’ eye color to blue. What’s more, as the lenses that most obviously white-wash users are those that apply makeup, rhinestones, and flower crows—characteristics generally associated with performances of beauty and femininity—Snapchat reifies beauty standards that disproportionately affect femme-presented persons of color. In other words, it's usually women of color who feel the negative effects of a racist lens/filter the most. 

Professor Bill Gaskins, who teaches photography at Cornell University, tells Complex that these racially biased filters fit into larger economic systems, like the makeup industry which encourages women to contour slimmer noses and higher cheek bones, the cultural prioritizing of black celebrities with lighter skin (and paler skin overall), and the criminal justice system that unfairly targets Black Americans. He says, “This is not about what an individual thinks alone. It’s how these values emerge structurally—how they affect people in employment, in education, in the criminal justice system. Something that is happening on Snapchat is only a microcosm of something that is much larger and much more insidious and structural.”

(first reaction to new snapchat filter from me and friend)
"whitewash much????" pic.twitter.com/bSK2yQFqP3
Ahhhhh snapchat made my namesake a filter, yasssssssss 🌟⭐️✨💫 (but that skin-whitening and face-narrowing 😒) pic.twitter.com/Lhw8l8vzmy

It is easy to ascribe scientific objectivity to technology, to assume that a product's design team represents the interests of every user, and that a tool like a camera simply captures reality, rather than filtering it. But cultural biases mediate every step of the construction and interpretation of images taken on Snapchat. Aisha Durham, a cultural studies scholar teaching at The University of South Florida tells Complex:

“We assume that technology is race-neutral. We can recall the national discussions about dash cameras and body cameras that could capture police brutality. We rarely consider programmers and developers of technology, editing tools, or even the different ways people can interpret the same image. Technology is not free of race. Race is actually embedded in technology. Both photography and scanners have been developed for light skin. On a personal note, I have anxiety each time pass through TSA-manned body scanner because I know the monitor will yellow flag my kinky hair as a possible threat. These tools suggest that technology already conforms to whiteness.”

This reality of technology influenced by cultural, political, and economic structures that encourage women to lighten their skin, stands in direct contrast with Snapchat’s articulated objectives. Researcher Nathan Jurgenson writes in a Snapchat blog post, “The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself.  It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now.” He argues that the ephemeral nature of image sharing on Snapchat has transformed the photograph from an end to a means and back to a new end: self-expression via communication.

Something that is happening on Snapchat is only a microcosm of something that is much larger and much more insidious and structural.

Snapchat sees itself as fostering individuality and personal connection, creating space for the narratives of each of its users equally. But the conversation is not entirely on users’ terms, as the tools used to take these images are not themselves unbiased. If the image is the means of communication, and that image is manipulated to say, “You will be more beautiful if your face contains less melanin,” or,  “Practicing femininity means not only celebrating flower crowns and glitter, but also contouring away the natural size of your nose and shape of your eyes,” how could an image taken on Snapchat ever be the authentic, unadulterated experience of users of color?  

Snapchat has also been critiqued for introducing a Bob Marley filter on April 20th of this year that transformed users’ faces into an approximation of Marley’s face, darkening skin and adding dreadlocks. Rather than broadening the range of facial structures included in the definition of beauty, this digital blackface temporarily portrayed blackness as a set of features that could be tried on, while continuing to assert that, on a daily basis, white beauty standards prevail. It acknowledged and caricaturized blackness, but did not normalize or celebrate it.

Why did Snapchat whitewash me pic.twitter.com/UuLK9toNoy

This is not to say that users completely lack awareness or agency, or that Snapchat is the sole perpetuator of racial inequality, but rather that there is an often-overlooked racial element to technology; the app exists squarely and comfortably in a culture that asserts that even our most banal moments deserve to be casually white-washed, that certain bodies must be “fixed” before they are respected as normative.

Snapchat, I am very disturbed by the fact that your "beautification" filters make my skin lighter, and my nose and jaw smaller. Just saying.

Gaskins feels that Snapchat has fallen into the “prevailing Euro-Western standards of beauty in which women of color are particularly assaulted physically through the existence of a standard that favors white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. This extends into the criminal justice system. For example, the 2014 MacArthur Genius winner, Jennifer Eberhart, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Stanford, was recognized for her research on the ways that individual racial codes categorize people. Through collaboration with people in the criminal justice system, she realized that African-American faces are identified as criminal more than white faces are. So, it’s not just simply about beauty as much as it is about this idea of inferiority and superiority based on skin color alone.”

Of course, when we consider Snapchat as simply one player in a large, complex system, it is difficult to say what the trajectory towards progress is, or if progress can even be represented by a linear regression moving steadily towards "post-raciality." It is nonetheless important to remember how on every level, our language, our selfies, our understandings of femininity and beauty are racially influenced, and to work towards undoing this privileging of one Eurocentric narrative above all others.

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