RACISM

It’s 2021, but People Are Still Using a Racist Blackface Filter on Instagram

Instagram has now taken down the controversial filter, but not before it helped several people go viral.
SJ
Mumbai, IN
girl on phone t
Photo by Elizabeth Fernandez / Getty

Instagram’s AR filters are great for when you want to swap your eyes for multiple mouths, turn into a Pokémon, or add shimmery sparkles to hype your very ordinary life. But when a filter tries to edit your features and skin tone, that’s when you should know it’s probably problematic. 

Now, the social media company is under fire for allowing a filter called “Booma Yee” that many have said is basically blackface — a form of theatrical makeup used by non-Black performers to caricature Black people. 

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But what’s worse is that this filter has fuelled a viral trend, one that has even helped users gain millions of views. 

In this Instagram Reels trend, a person uses the filter to make their skin appear darker while donning a gloomy face to indicate how upset they are about their skin colour. Then, a transition is used to remove the filter, after which the user immediately perks up, indicating that through some divine act, they are now beautiful and happy because they are no longer dark-skinned. 

“During a serial scrolling session, I came across one video where a girl was visibly sad about her dark skin tone, and then she changes her skin colour by removing the filter and is like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m fair’,” Vaishnavi Prasad, a content and marketing specialist who first flagged this trend on Twitter, told VICE. 

Prasad was appalled when she saw young teenagers hopping onto the trend in the hope of going viral, as most users who did this were gaining millions of views. 

“You see this narrative in mainstream media, such as fairness cream ads and movies. It’s usually done subtly but the message they give out is that being fair gives you confidence. But this trend, which predominantly features fair-skinned people putting down dark skin, is very blatant and in-your-face.” 

Instagram has now taken down the filter from their platform, but not before hundreds used it to make viral videos, some that have even gotten more than 7 million views. 

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This happened despite Facebook, the company that owns Instagram, saying they have a strict, no-tolerance policy for blackface. 

Colourism, the bias against people of darker skin tones, is an issue deeply embedded in Indian society through centuries of social conditioning. Until they were banned in the face of the Black Lives Movement protests last year, Indian companies peddled fairness products by marketing light skin as something better, more beautiful and desirable, to create a booming billion dollar fairness industry

Meanwhile, critics have called out Bollywood movies and actors for associating fairness with beauty and their use of blackface to make actors appear darker than they are to fit certain roles, instead of hiring someone who actually has that skin tone. 

The pervasive preference for light skin tends to affect women more than men, especially when it comes to marriage, desirability and self-confidence. 

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“In Tamil, there is a saying that means ‘anyone who’s fair skinned won’t lie,’ and Indians in general believe being fair is better and more beautiful, so I’m not surprised a Reels trend like this went viral,” said Prasad. “Some have asked why we’re pulling up and not other filters used to change facial features. But the problem is that this filter is deeply rooted in problematic behaviour.”

Discrimination on the basis of skin colour is interconnected to other toxic beliefs, too. “Colourism is inextricably linked to other issues of systemic injustice including racism, classicism and even casteism,” Kavitha Emmanuel, the founder of women’s issues NGO Women of Worth, told VICE last year. “It is intraracial and interracial. A dark-skinned person is usually associated with the so-called lower-caste and discriminated against.”

VICE reached out to Instagram for a statement and will update the story accordingly. 

Follow Shamani on Instagram and Twitter.