With the new technology of face-detecting lenses, Snapchat allows its users to apply face filters and play with identity, sometimes in ways that “border on the absurd”. Generating more than 30 million selfies a day, this seemingly entertaining feature has been accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes, such as subtly promoting white skin as the ideal beauty standard and encouraging blackface.
In August 2016, the company released a slant-eyed face filter with distorted teeth and cheeks. This time, Snapchat came under attack for reinforcing “yellow-face,” as the filter was very much like a caricature of Asian people. The company offered an explanation, saying that the lens was inspired by anime characters. But many remained outraged, resulting in widely circulated tweets attacking the filter. Eventually, the filter was deleted by Snapchat.
As an active Snapchat user, I have to admit that I was initially unaware of the filter’s racist nature until I saw furious Tweets about it. What really got to me, however, was the fact that many failed to take the outrage seriously and blamed the Asian community for making a fuss over something as trivial as a Snapchat filter, when in fact the controversy lends ethos to a larger sociocultural issue: an underrepresentation of Asian Americans in leadership positions at the workplace.
Katie Zhu, a Chinese American product manager working for Medium, wrote an essay attributing Snapchat’s race-related controversies to the lack of diversity in the company’s leadership positions. “I don’t know what their diversity numbers look like,” she writes, “but even if there are people of color working there, they’re clearly not in positions where they feel comfortable speaking up or their input isn’t valued at the same level as some white male executives.”
Many agreed with Zhu’s perspective. Snapchat refused to discuss the racial backgrounds of its staff members, with CEO Evan Spiegel claiming that the company doesn’t “think about diversity in terms of numbers.”
Snapchat is not the only corporation with the issue of bamboo ceiling. In 2015, an Asian professional organization conducted a report on diversity in Silicon Valley and found that at five tech firms, namely Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, Asian Americans tend to face barriers in obtaining positions at management and executive levels. While there are around 80% of white executives in these firms, Asian Americans make up only 14% of these positions.
With their target audience being teenagers all over the world, Snapchat has to be more attentive to racial controversies – and in order to do so, it first needs to improve the diversity level within the company.