By Jason A. Smith
Outrage over the Bob Marley Snapchat filter was swift following its brief appearance on the mobile application’s platform on April 20 (The 420 pot smoking holiday). The idea of mimicking Bob Marley in appreciation of a day dedicated to smoking marijuana enabled users to don the hat, dreads, and…blackface!? News outlets that day covered the issue pretty quickly. CNN.money and The Verge noted the negative reactions voiced on social media in regard to the filter. Tech publisher Wired released a brief article condemning it, calling it racially tone-deaf.
The racial implications of the Bob Marley filter are multifaceted, yet I would like to focus on the larger cultural logic occurring both above and behind the scenes at an organization like Snapchat. The creation of a filter that tapped into blackface iconography demonstrates the complexity of our relationship to various forms of technology – as well as how we choose to represent ourselves through those technologies. French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote in The Technological Society of ‘technique’ as an encompassing train of thought or practice based on rationality that achieves its desired end. Ellul spoke of technique in relation to advances in technology and human affairs in the aftermath of World War II, yet his emphasis was not on the technology itself, but rather the social processes that informed the technology. This means that in relation to a mobile application like Snapchat we bring our social baggage with us when we use it, and so do developers when they decide to design a new filter. Jessie Daniels addresses racial technique in her current projects regarding colorblind racism and the internet – in which the default for tech insiders is a desire to not see race. This theoretically rich work pulls us out of the notion that technology is neutral within a society that has embedded racial meanings flowing through various actors and institutions, and where those who develop the technology we use on a daily basis are unprepared to acknowledge the racial disparities which persist, and the racial prejudice that can—and does—permeate their designs.
This understanding of technique, when combined with critical race theory, allows us to ask if the presence of blackface in technology is any big surprise in a presumably “post-racial” world. I am positive that any critical race scholar would, without hesitation, answer, “No, it’s not.” And that’s because we are definitively not post-racial. The intentions behind the filter might have been innocent or playful by developers, but the use of blackface within society has a long and complex history – particularly in regard to its use as a tool to perpetuate systemic racial inequalities in the dehumanizing and “othering” of African Americans in the United States. Hollywood has traditionally been the long time perpetrator of promoting blackface, and variations of it, through utilizing stereotypes that adapt to a given historical moment in society. Yet the racial implications of blackface extend beyond the screens in which we view film. Over the past couple of years tensions brought up over racialized costumes during Halloween and college parties demonstrate the reach and continuation of blackface. With such a contemporary example that has generated conflict within the general public, it seems as if the tech innovators at Snapchat would have known better. I guess that is just wishful thinking. This movement and use of blackface from film, to parties, to the mobile app demonstrates what Ellul meant in regard to technique. The continuation of blackface in our society presently is not necessarily linked to the technologies that produce them, but through the ways in which individuals develop and utilize those technologies. The presumed innocence of using blackface to ‘celebrate’ an individual within a logic of providing ‘daily-new’ filters for consumer use reflects a gross oversight in what blackface means within the larger cultural sphere of public life.
The continued existence of racism in society is undertaken through multiple shifts and debates, in which no actor or institution stands in isolation. This case of the Bob Marley filter only highlights the ways that historical racist images are allowed to perpetuate themselves in the present – becoming not-so-historical in the process as they reincarnate through new mediums. I have no doubt that some cases might be found of individuals using the filter, or commenting on it, in overtly racist ways. Yet, as mentioned above, voices also sprang up to condemn the filter as racially insensitive in various social media and news sites. The technique of blackface is malleable in that it lingers on through practices that are uncritically carried out by tech developers, but those practices are also challenged through other means across various technologies. Unraveling this technique requires disrupting the structural racism that upholds it. Brushing off the filter as a misstep by Snapchat or condemning the developers as socially out of touch, is antithetical to the critical race project, a project that is less interested in identifying those who fail at race relations and more interested in identifying the social conditions that allow racism to persist.
Jason A. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Public Sociology at George Mason University whose research centers on the areas of race and the media. His dissertation will look at the Federal Communications Commission and policy decisions regarding diversity in the media for minorities and women. Along with Bhoomi K. Thakore, he is a co-editor of the forthcoming volume Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century US Media (Routledge, May 2016). He is on twitter occasionally.
This post originally appeared on Cyborgology on May 2, 2016