Last week, Snapchat lost face.
The company introduced a face-warping filter that transforms the user into a slanty-eyed, buck toothed, East Asian caricature. It was meant to be “playful,” “never to offend,” according to a company statement. After vocal protests by Asian Americans and other users on social media, the filter was disabled after only one day.
Snapchat claimed the lens was intended as an homage to anime. But to anime fans, that explanation rings hollow. Anime characters traditionally have rounded, oversized eyes like the early Disney cartoons that inspired them. The Snapchat caricatures did not.
A previous Snapchat “homage” to Bob Marley had already been criticized as digital blackface. How odd that the company would move on to yellowface—in effect making the same mistake twice.
Racial caricature is a visual stereotype, an exaggeration often invoked in the service of satire. Aristotle noted that comedy “is an imitation of inferior things and people.” Ethnic Halloween costumes and American Indian mascots like Chief Wahoo distort iconic physical features or other visual markers of difference for comic effect.
Snapchat’s lens is a visual joke made at the expense of Asian Americans. A specific type of humor, its pleasure lies in producing feelings of dominance or superiority. As Freud notes in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, enjoyment is derived from “making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic.”
As psychologists have documented, repeated exposure to racial stereotypes also impacts the mental health of people of color.
Snapchat took quick action. But that does not explain its faux pas. Multiple media outlets pointed to the tech industry’s lack of diversity, suggesting that if people of color were better represented, there would be greater awareness of offensive imagery.
This is a fair assumption. But greater representation is only part of the fix.
We need to get to heart of why caricatures and stereotypes keep coming up. Before young children understand the racial-ethnic categories invoked by adults, they are most likely to classify people first by racial features, second by gender, and third by clothing.
Differences seen on the body are thus “psychologically privileged” as a means of sorting people. But how do we come to affix positive or negative associations to those classifications? Simply, we are more likely to invoke group categories when individual behaviors converge with existing social biases.
In this moment of highly publicized racial violence and talk of building a wall, a Snapchat protest may seem trivial. But it’s not. Racial caricatures shares the same root as racial profiling. They both reduce individuals to “types” that serve as sources of pleasure or fear.
As a culture, we can and are evolving. Can Snapchat users recall “Chinese Cherry” or “Injun Orange” drink mixes? The Frito Bandito? They are relics of the past. In this new digital age of bodily flexibility and playful self-imagining, let’s keep them there.
Leslie Bow is a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.