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'Make Me' Asian App Sparks Online Backlash

Jan 12, 2013
Originally published on January 17, 2013 10:04 am

Tens of thousands of people have downloaded two apps from the Google Play Store that are sparking accusations of racism.

The "Make me Asian" and "Make me Indian" apps allow Android smartphone users to take a picture and superimpose characteristics the developer thinks relate to those ethnic groups. An online petition is urging Google to remove the apps from its store.

The Make me Asian app manipulates pictures to give the subject yellow-tinged skin, narrow eyes, a conical rice-paddy hat and a Fu Manchu mustache taken from a fictional Chinese villain.

Washington, D.C., Pastor Peter Chin is succinct about why he objects to the app: "It's really, 'Make Me An Asian Stereotype.' "

Chin started a petition at Change.org against Make me Asian and a similar app for Native Americans. The latter app adorns users with a Native American headband — complete with a feather — long, dark hair and war paint under the eyes.

Chin says the Google Play apps are dangerous.

"My fear is that these kind of characterizations would similarly kind of become mainstream by virtue of Google's ... immense cultural influence," he says.

A Google spokeswoman said via email that the company removes apps that violate its policies. Google does have a policy against hate speech, but a source familiar with Google practices says the company considers the "intent" of an app when reviewing it, and few violate its policies.

The developer of the Make me Asian app — whom NPR was unable to identify and reach — also created similar apps that make one appear to be Frankenstein or bald or fat.

The apps have caused a firestorm online, with outrage spreading on Facebook and Twitter. But Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang isn't shocked.

"There's a kind of cultural programming that makes it more acceptable to racially mock Asians and Native Americans than other groups," he says.

Yang says that's partly because there are fewer Asian and Native Americans in this country than there are African- or Latino-Americans.

"There is less inherent social and political power associated with these groups," he says. "There's fewer consequences as a result if you parody, satire or mock or offend these communities."

Yang thinks this app is just the latest platform on which racism is playing out. Yet some users who commented on the Make me Asian app say their issue is that it just doesn't work very well.

"It was junk," user Ali Etezadkhah says.

Junk — but not racist, he says. He adds that people shouldn't overreact to such things.

"If you make a big deal out of it, you're actually giving more power to the person who made it," he says.

Etezadkhah says as an Iranian who moved to the U.S. as a child, he learned to deal with racism by ignoring it.

But Chin and the more than 8,000 who have signed his petition believe by allowing apps like these in the Google Play store, the company is giving stereotypes a lasting foothold.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people have downloaded two apps from the Google Store that are sparking accusations of racism. "Make me Asian" and "Make me Indian" apps allow Android smartphone users to take a photo of someone then add characteristics to the person's face the app's developer determined relate to those ethnic groups. But NPR's Allison Keyes reports, an online petition is urging Google to remove the apps.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The "Make me Asian" app lets you manipulate a phone picture and give yourself yellow-tinged skin, narrow eyes, one of those conical rice paddy hats, and a Fu Manchu mustache taken from a fictional Chinese villain. Washington, D.C., pastor Peter Chin is succinct about why he objects to the app.

PETER CHIN: It's really "Make me an Asian Stereotype."

KEYES: Chin started a petition at change.org against the "Make me Asian" app and a similar one for Native Americans. The latter app adorns users with a Native American headband, complete with a feather; long, dark hair; and war paint under the eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LONE RANGER")

CLAYTON MOORE: (as Lone Ranger) You're Tonto.

JAY SILVERHEELS: (as Tonto) That's right. Me Tonto.

KEYES: That's from the broken-English-speaking, buckskin-wearing sidekick to the hero, in the 1950s "Lone Ranger" TV series; which illustrates that there's nothing new about unflattering portrayals of Native Americans and Asians. Remember those slant-eyed, buck-toothed, evil cats from Disney's "Lady and the Tramp"?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY AND THE TRAMP")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Characters) (Singing) We are Siamese if you please...

KEYES: Chin says the Google Play apps are dangerous.

CHIN: My fear was that these kind of characterizations would similarly, kind of become mainstream by virtue of Google's immense - kind of - cultural influence.

KEYES: A Google spokeswoman said via email that the company removes apps that violate its policies. Google does have a policy against hate speech. But a source familiar with Google practices says the company considers the intent of an app when reviewing it, and few violate its policies. The developer of the "Make me Asian" app, whom NPR was unable to identify or reach, also created similar apps that make one appear to be Frankenstein, or bald, or fat.

The apps have caused a firestorm online, and some bloggers have been tweeting and Facebooking their outrage over the apps. But Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang isn't shocked because he thinks...

JEFF YANG: There's a kind of cultural programming that makes it more acceptable to racially mock Asians and Native Americans than - other groups.

KEYES: Yang says that's partly because there are fewer Asian and Native Americans in this country than there are African- or Latino-Americans; which means...

YANG: There is less inherent social and political power associated with these groups. There's fewer consequences, as a result, if you parody, satire, or mock or offend these communities.

KEYES: Yang thinks this app is just the latest platform on which racism is playing out. But some users who commented on the "Make me Asian" app said their issue is it just doesn't work very well.

ALI ETEZADKHAH: It was junk.

KEYES: Junk - but not racist, says user Ali Etezadkhah. He says that people shouldn't overreact to such things.

ETEZADKHAH: If you make a big deal out of it, you're actually giving more power to the person who made it.

KEYES: Etezadkhah says as an Iranian who moved to the U.S. as a child, he learned to deal with racism by ignoring it. But Peter Chin, and the more than 8,000 who have signed his petition, believe by allowing apps like these in the Google Play store, the company is giving stereotypes a lasting foothold.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.