Popular apps perpetrate systemic racism


Ava Ahmann

In today’s online world the debate over what is racist or discriminatory is just as heated as it is in real life. Apps like Snapchat and Pokemon Go as well as websites, such as AirBnb  are raising important questions about what we view as racist and what we dismiss as nothing.

When April 20, the unofficial international weed day,  came around last spring, Snapchat was ready to give their users a special “420” filter. (“420” being the name of the legislation to legalize marijuana in the United States, and a nickname for all things marijuana-related). Snapchat’s choice for the filter was a “face-swap” of Bob Marley, the famous Jamaican Reggae singer, who was pro-marijuana use and smoked it as part of his Rastafarian faith. The filter allowed users to project a crude image of Marley over their face, but once done it was hard to recognize that it was Bob Marley at all.

I along with many users expressed anger over the filter, which was promoting a strange sort of digital blackface. It also gave people the wrong idea about Marley, portraying him as solely a symbol of recreational marijuana usage, instead of the important musician and advocate for social change that he was.

Instead of apologizing to upset users, Snapchat attempted to justify the filter by stating that “millions of Snapchatters have enjoyed Bob Marley’s music, and we respect his life and achievements.” The filter “gives people a new way to share their appreciation for Bob Marley and his music.”

However, in August Snapchat repeated their mistake, this time with a filter that allowed users to have “anime features,” which really just projected squinty eyes, big teeth and rosy cheeks onto users. This caused a similar uproar with users who deemed it “yellow face.” Once is a simple mistake but twice is indicative of a deeper problem, what is going on in snapchat headquarters that gives them the idea that this is ok? Because you’d have to be pretty blind not to see what is so wrong with having these types of filters.

“Sketch Factor” an app that has since been removed, allowed users to avoid certain places when users reported “sketchy” behavior in those areas. “Sketchy” behavior could have meant anything, and for the brief period when the app was live people relied on the words of strangers for their apparent safety. Unsurprisingly the app was a mess, people said all sorts of things from complaining about preppy people to calling out someone who was acting creepy. Besides the unfocused complaints the app was also an easy way for people to promote stereotypes, based on the appearance of others or the neighborhood instead of the actual personalities of people and the real character of the neighborhood. The creators of the app were two white millennials, clearly unaware of the fact that their app was perhaps unintentionally, a tool for promoting segregation and stereotypes.

The popular app Pokémon Go, a game in which players can roam around collecting Pokemon in their cities and neighborhoods, also came under fire favoring upper class white neighborhoods as accessible places for the app, while neighborhoods that were less white didn’t receive the same treatment. Black players (because Black people don’t want to play Pokemon go?) found  that there were significantly fewer training centers and Pokemon in their neighborhoods. This isn’t the only digital entity that have been called out on discrimination. Recently on Airbnb, a website that allows people to book stays in other people’s homes when on vacation, Black users have raised more awareness on the ongoing discriminatory nature of the site after a North Carolina host was removed from the site for saying racial slurs to a Black woman who was interested in renting his home. I was truly horrified that the app provided the means for a racist man to attack a black woman, and it took such a drastic situation for the company to recognize the ongoing problem  its Black users face.

So what do we do when the digital age allows us to perpetrate racism and discrimination without even needing to state our name? We should speak out and make sure we are not subsiding our character just for a fun selfie. Equally important, the predominantly white owners of these websites and apps must reach out and employ a broad range of races and sexes. Otherwise there’s no doubt these problems will continue.