The 'yellowface' Snapchat filter is nothing new – East Asian stereotyping is the last acceptable form of racism

Several reputable studies have concluded that the ethnic group that suffers the highest rates of unreported racist hate crime in Britain is East Asians. When the butt of the joke is dehumanised in this way, it’s only a matter of time before that butt gets kicked

A Twitter user demands answers from Snapchat about the filter, which has been widely condemned as racist
A Twitter user demands answers from Snapchat about the filter, which has been widely condemned as racist

Snapchat is being defensive about its “anime” filter which is (rightly, in my opinion) being called out as an example of “yellowface”. Yellowface is of course nothing new and neither is the defensiveness around it. People tend to dig their heels in about yellowface a lot. Indeed, I’ve argued previously that yellowface is the last acceptable bastion of racist caricature and racial appropriation.

Like blackface and brownface, there are two basic forms of yellowface. There is the type that enables actors (nearly always of Caucasian descent) to portray characters who are supposed to be East Asian. Some of these actors have even been nominated for awards for dressing up in exotic costumes and perfecting stilted hybrid accents. This type of “performance yellowface” completely perpetuates the notion that actors of Caucasian descent are inherently more talented, more intelligent, more nuanced and more skilful practitioners of the thespian arts – an utterly ludicrous premise which has had to be (and continues to be) fought very hard. After all, let us not forget that once upon a time women were not allowed on the stage either and were portrayed by young men. If anyone seriously wants to try and posit the argument that men playing women is somehow preferable to watching the likes of Judi Dench, Halle Berry or Juliet Binoche in action then good luck with that one.

The other type of yellowface – the Snapchat variety – is obviously meant to be fun but also points up and exaggerates certain perceived ethnic “traits” which enforce stereotypes and are used to ridicule and dehumanise. It encourages people to pull back their eyes into thin slants, pronounce their l’s as r’s and force their teeth to protrude in the guise of the “comedy oriental” a la Mickey Rooney in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It is of course entirely false. Many, many East Asians have very large eyes, there is no greater occurrence of buckteeth in certain racial groups and, as for the r’s and l’s, let’s face it, there are sounds in all “foreign” languages that the majority of English speakers will struggle with hopelessly. But the whole point of yellowface is it reinforces a certain perceived cultural superiority: you can’t speak our language perfectly so you’re obviously a bit strange (even though you probably speak our language with far more command and dexterity than most of us would ever have yours).

Both types of yellowface render people of East Asian descent as invisible ciphers with no personality or individual characteristics. Like blackface or brownface, they reinforce White Western Caucasian as the supreme “norm”; the default setting to which every other type of ethnicity is at best a quirky exotic counterpoint and, at worst, some form of hateful deviation, to be scorned, dominated and kept in its place lest it claim some form of parity in the wider “Caucasian” world.

If anyone reading feels this in any way over-sensitive it might be worth googling some Nazi caricatures of Jews in the 1930s. I’m sure that was all good fun back in the day but we all know how that ended up. It’s also worth remembering that several reputable studies have concluded that the ethnic group that suffers the highest rates of unreported racist hate crime in Britain is East Asians. Traditionally the most unassertive and disparate racial group lacking any kind of media voice or presence, this is really no coincidence. When the butt of the joke is dehumanised in this way, it’s only a matter of time before that butt gets kicked.

It’s sometimes argued that this kind of ridicule cuts both ways and is a basic component of humour that goes on in all cultures – but a recent Chinese detergent advert featuring a black man being “washed” Chinese rightly attracted mass social media disapproval. Interestingly, the one East Asian country where you can find regular racist caricatures of white people is...North Korea.

Any other ways we want to emulate the Democratic People’s Republic? Then start caring about racial caricatures in Snapchat filters.

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