Snapchat apparently wants to make sure people know that both Black and white employees were involved in the creation of the offensive filter, or Lens in Snapchat jargon, it launched on Juneteenth – a day that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the US – that placed an approximation of the Pan-African flag behind users and asked them to smile to break the chains of slavery.
The company addressed the issue in an internal email written by its vice president of diversity and inclusion, Oona King, that was published by the Verge on Sunday. In the email, King defended the company against the accusation that it had failed to include Black perspectives in the creation of the Lens, and said that Black Snap team members had been involved in every step of its development and approval.
In hindsight, she said the company should have developed a more appropriate Lens.
However, King’s assertion about Black team members’ involvement has been disputed. Per the Verge, Black Snap employees were involved in creating the filter but did not see that the final version included an action that would break chains if the user smiled.
King went further in her email and revealed the race of people involved in key aspects of the filter. She said that the two Snap team members who on separate occasions specifically questioned if the “smile” trigger was appropriate for Juneteenth were white. Meanwhile, the Snap team members who first suggested the smile trigger and said that it was acceptable to use “were Black Snap team members, and/or members of my team.”
“Speaking on behalf of my team, clearly we failed to recognise the gravity of the ‘smile’ trigger,” King said. “That is a failure I fully own. We reviewed the Lens from the standpoint of Black creative content, made by and for Black people, so did not adequately consider how it would look when used by non-Black members of our community.”
Snap’s gaffe came shortly after CEO Evan Spiegel said the company would not release a diversity report. According to Spiegel, the company is working on its “own version of a diversity report.” Spiegel has said that Snap’s workforce is similar to that of other technology companies. In other words, male and white.
In an emailed statement to Gizmodo, Snap apologised for the offence the lens caused to members of its community. The company said that although a diverse group of Snap team members was involved in developing the concept for the Lens, the version of the Lens that appeared in the app had not been approved through its review process. Snap said that it was investigating why this mistake occurred so that it could avoid it in the future.
Anyone with a phone knows that we live in a society that likes to share and celebrate things (e.g. National Doughnut Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, etc.), and in general there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are some days, like Juneteenth, that we should simply let be. Not all days need a filter or Lens, and that’s okay.
You can read King’s full email to the company below. The emphasis is hers.
As a leader responsible for driving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Snap, I want to directly address what happened with the Juneteenth Lens yesterday.
Snap released a Lens to commemorate Juneteenth that many people felt was offensive because it prompted users to ‘smile’ to break the chains of slavery. Snap was also accused of failing to include Black perspectives in the creation of our Lens to mark Juneteenth — a date often celebrated by African-Americans to mark the end of slavery. After reviewing how the process unfolded, it’s very clear that Black Snap team members were fully involved in every stage of developing and approving the Lens and that, in hindsight, we should have developed a more appropriate Lens.
I particularly want to apologize to our team members who have been accused both externally and internally of failing to be culturally sensitive; in some instances they have actually been called racist. This is completely unacceptable.
All of these accusations are particularly painful, first because we care so deeply about racial justice, and second because the accusations are completely untrue. For the record, and the avoidance of all doubt: the two Snap team members who on separate occasions specifically questioned if the “smile” trigger was appropriate for Juneteenth were two White team members. The Snap team members who suggested the smile trigger to begin with, and said it was acceptable to use, were Black Snap team members, and / or members of my team.
Speaking on behalf of my team, clearly we failed to recognize the gravity of the “smile” trigger. That is a failure I fully own. We reviewed the Lens from the standpoint of Black creative content, made by and for Black people, so did not adequately consider how it would look when used by non-Black members of our community. What we also did not fully realize was a) that a ‘smile’ trigger would necessarily include the actual word “smile” on the content; and b) that people would perceive this as work created by White creatives, not Black creatives.
We feel it is perfectly acceptable as Black people to celebrate the end of slavery — as we do with picnics, BBQs, street parties and other forms of celebration across America — and say “Smile! Happy Juneteenth; we’re no longer enslaved! But we’re not yet really free either!” However for a White person to tell a Black person: “Smile! You’re no longer slaves” is offensive in the extreme. I’m hoping many people will understand how the same word can be appropriate in one context, but inappropriate in another, depending on who is using it. Regardless, we should not have used smiling as a trigger to break the chains of slavery in the Lens, and we understand why that was offensive.
The mischaracterization on social media — that White executives at a tech company failed, yet again, to include Black perspectives — is completely untrue. What is true is that regardless of our diverse backgrounds, we are all human, and humans make mistakes. We are building a culture where we confront and acknowledge our errors so that we can learn, improve and grow together. This mistake has taught us a valuable lesson, and I am sincerely sorry that it came at the expense of what we meant to be a respectful commemoration of this important day.
Featured image: Robyn Beck (AFP via Getty Images)