Revealing the Hidden Racism of Instagram Filters

by Morgan Jenkins for Racked

Last year, Kane's Dawn Richards uploaded a selfie on Instagram that lead to plenty of backlash from her fans. Aside from the apparent plastic surgery, many suspected that she had bleached her skin. In response, Richards tweeted "Filter is the new bleach."

For women of color, she's right. Instagram users can choose from over 20 filters, but as subjects, we don't have a choice in how our images are processed once a filter is in place. In the name of enhancing or beautifying our photos, filters inevitably alter our appearances beyond recognition.

People often think of technology as inherently unbiased, but photography has a history of racism. InTechnologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography and Television, British academic Brian Winston writes, "Colour photography is not bound to be ‘faithful' to the natural world. Choices are made in the development and production of photographic materials." In other words, what you see in a photo is never pure reality—it's the world as someone has chosen to depict it. And for the first hundred or so years of filmmaking, camera technology chose to ignore people of color entirely, leaving photographers' tools with built-in biases.

The way that racism operates aesthetically is to neglect or, in extreme cases, erase whoever is not white. In the 1950s, for example, Kodak measured and calibrated skin tones in still photography using a reference card featuring "Shirley," a white model dressed in high-contrast clothing. Ultimately, Shirley ended up being the standard for image processing in North American photography labs. It didn't matter if the photo in question contained entirely black people; Shirley's complexion was still treated as the ideal.

Kodak's film was so bad at capturing the different hues and saturations of black skin that when director Jean Luc Godard was sent on an assignment to Mozambique in 1977, he flat-out refused to use Kodak on the grounds that its stock was "racist." Only when the candy and furniture industries began complaining that they couldn't accurately shoot dark chocolate and brown wood furniture did Kodak start to improve its technology.

What was the problem, exactly? London-based artist Adam Broomberg, who co-produced a 2013 show of photos taken with old Polaroid film, explained to The Guaridan that black skin absorbs 42% more light than white skin. Picture a photograph with two women, one black and one white. If the photographer adjusts the light so that the black woman doesn't resemble a dark blob with white teeth, the white woman, as a result, will become so light that her intensity will perhaps be blinding.

Fortunately, today photographers and cinematographers are working to better represent people of color. In a BuzzFeed essay, Syreeta McFadden details how she primarily photographs in color, using cross-processing slide film in order to subvert the light-dark skin bias. And in a Washington Post article about lighting black skin in the movies, Montré Aza Missouri, an assistant professor of Film at Howard University, explains how she teaches her students that "the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral." Missouri says there are ways to illuminate the complexity of darker skin tones without over-saturating them, such as opening a camera's apertures one or two notches to allow for more light to permeate the lens so that it reflect off the subject's skin.

Still, most American film stocks were not built by or made for people of color, so what does this mean for Instagram, which prides itself on allowing its users to filter photos so that they look like they were taken from a Polaroid or Kodak? Kodak is now bankrupt, but is Instagram continuing its predecessor's myopic vision?

To test this theory, I decided to gather a few models of various ethnicities to see how the filters affected their skin tones and inevitably changed their appearances. When I asked T, a blonde white woman, to send me a selfie, she happened to choose one in which she's wearing a black dress that offers high contrast to her pale skin, similar to "Shirley." I applied the Reyes filter, which Instagram describes as bringing a "dusty, vintage look to your moments." When I showed T this side-by-side collage, she said, "Oh, it lightens me more than I realized!" But there was nothing about this alteration that startled her. As a white woman, seeing her skin lightened doesn't carry much cultural baggage or threaten her privileged place within society.

However, when M, an African-American woman, applied the Reyes filter to her original image, the result was astounding. When I asked M what she thought her filtered image, she replied, "Ew. This is completely white-washed. The colors of my lipstick and dress are very muted, and I look entirely too bright. If someone didn't know me, they could mistake me for being much more fair skinned than I am. I don't like it."

Continue reading at Racked

Photo: 2nix Studio / Shutterstock

Morgan Jerkins is a writer and recent NYC transplant from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Literary Orphans, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Toast, and Quartz, among many others. She's also the blog editor for Side B Magazine, a literary journal that uplifts underrepresented voices. Visit her website:

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