Snapchat Unfiltered

I am an avid user of Snapchat filters. Ever since Snapchat introduced the overlays that distort, manipulate or cover your face in fun ways, I’ve been hooked. Most filters are harmless – I’m a fan of the vomiting rainbows, the crazy eyes, the dog ears, and even the scary ghost at times. But not all filters have been innocuous. Snapchat has published a number of controversial ones, including an abstract art filter that allegedly plagiarized a Russian artists’ portrait; a blatantly racist Bob Marley filter that made users’ faces appear a darker skin tone; and, most recently, an anime filter that promoted “yellowface” by stylizing users with caricatural East-Asian features. The one that caught my attention, however, has been subject to no such public scandal. In fact, it’s been dismissed as a generic, uninspired filter, something more likely to provoke indifference than controversy: the beauty filter.

Though not its official name, the “beauty filter” intends to make the user more attractive. Its effects include whitening and brightening the skin, widening the eyes, slimming the nose, and injecting a bubbly, optimistic glow. The first time I encountered the filter, I had to play around a couple times to figure out what it did – the changes are deceitfully subtle, but the combined effect indisputably makes you “prettier.”

This filter subscribes to a traditional and westernized notion of beauty. Some of its features, like removing blemishes or fading discoloration, are morally questionable but otherwise harmless. They reinforce a superficial but more or less universal aspect of beauty. But the other effects – less so. Thinner nose, lighter skin, bigger, rounder eyes: these are all features found most often in Eurocentric standards of beauty. This filter makes you look white.

It’s concerning that Snapchat has a history of appropriating racial identity – just look at the Bob Marley and anime-inspired filters – but it’s even worse that this “white-ifying” filter is masquerading as a beauty filter. While the allegedly unintentional blackface and yellowface filters were grotesquely exaggerated, this beauty filter is uncharacteristically normal. In fact, it’s pretty. It’s sending the subliminal message that white is synonymous to attractive, while Asian or black or any other race are to be used as comical caricatures to pose as and laugh about.

The other problem with this filter’s uncharacteristic normality is the lack of dialogue that it provokes. Its problematic nature likely slips under the rug.

Of course, Snapchat isn’t the sole culprit of racism. Racial aggression and insensitivity still circulate everywhere, from workplaces to high schools. But Snapchat is an international media company worth 20 billion dollars with one of the largest and most devoted user bases. As one of the largest social media companies in the world, Snapchat should know better than to blithely engage in systemic racism. A high schooler sending a racist tweet, while exasperating, is mostly ineffectual. A multi-billion dollar company nurturing racial ignorance with a product used by millions – that’s concerning.

I believe that Andover students, on the other hand, have become mindful of building an inclusive and diverse team of students to act as boards of clubs or student leaders. We’ve improved in our abilities to consider many facets of identity before making our decision to put certain students at the forefront of organizations. But just like at Snapchat, subtle discrimination at Andover goes unnoticed and unexamined. An oblivious student will comment without tact – often with the intent of flattery – on a person of color’s skin, hair, or facial features. This can often lead to discomfort and feelings of inferiority on the part of the person of color.

Andover students may be the social media moguls or powerful business executives of the future. We therefore must learn from the mistakes of Snapchat and avoid the danger of repressing minorities in even the most mundane of activities.