Snapchat Goes ‘Al Jolson’ with Blackface Filter

Snapchat becomes the latest technology company to be accused of racial insensitivity

(Image credit: Maurizio Pesce)

In honor of 4/20 day, (the unofficial celebration of marijuana day) Snapchat caused outrage by offering a filter allowing its users to make themselves resemble Bob Marley, including adorning a user’s image with Marley’s complexion.

[Related: Black Tech Founder Tweets Frustration]

In what is being deemed as “digital blackface,” many have expressed anger over the filter which also adds Marley’s signature dreadlocks to a user’s photo. The app superimposes Marley’s image over the user’s:

“Yeah–this is pretty poor…” –@OnlinePRPixie

“Snapchat blackface–the case for greater diversity in tech” –@BalwynBattler

#Snapchat messed up with its Bob Marley tribute, plain and simple” –@MajWal7

The Twitterverse is also taking celebutante Kylie Jenner to task for using the filter, reports The Guardian. In an opinion piece for Refinery29, Madeline Buxton wrote:

“Snapchat’s many filters and face swaps are usually pure fun (flower crowns, alien heads, axe-wielding vikings!), but today’s 4/20 filter goes too far.”

“What at first seems innocent enough – a Bob Marley-themed image – quickly becomes disturbing. You can don Marley’s trademark dreadlocks and Rasta Hat, sure. But the problem is what happens to your skin tone: The filter is clearly blackface.”

Snapchat is an image messaging app that lets users send pictures and videos to others within a specified time-frame, after which the content becomes inaccessible. It was launched in 2011 by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown. Several media outlets requested a response from Snapchat to the controversy. The company seems to have issued a canned response which can be read on several news sites:

From The Guardian:

The lens we launched today was created in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate, and gives people a new way to share their appreciation for Bob Marley and his music. Millions of Snapchatters have enjoyed Bob Marley’s music, and we respect his life and achievements.

The Snapchat fumble is the latest of many missteps by technology companies on issues pertaining to race. A YouTube video went viral a few years ago, when two colleagues; a white woman and a black man; demonstrated how an HP webcam with facial recognition capability only recognized her light skin and not his darker tone.

More recently, Microsoft launched an Artificial Intelligence chatbot named Tay. It was designed to engage in a chat across social media with 18- to 24-year-olds. Several users across social media exploited that chatbot to make it issue a series of racist and sexist Tweets.

Microsoft took Tay offline and issued a statement,”Unfortunately, in the first 24 hours of coming online, a coordinated attack by a subset of people exploited a vulnerability in Tay…”

Such incidents are evidence, some argue, of the of a lack of diversity in the technology industry.


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  • zenduane

    Those who criticize Al Jolson don’t know their entertainment history. He was at the forefront of desegregating hotels, restaurants, and the entertainment industry. He stood on the front lines (for real) with the unions demanding the right to unionize when it was deemed unpatriotic (even communist) to do so. In the latter part of his life, he never did blackface because times had changed. He donated millions to charity. And, he (unlike Bob Hope) initiated the USO tours using his own money to entertain our trips during WWII and the Korean war. I hope the time comes when he is recognized for his huge contribution to our country and not just “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”