As a New Zealand citizen studying at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, it should’ve been easy for Richard Lee to renew his passport.
There are many good reasons a passport photo can be rejected. The photograph could be blurry, the subject could be looking away from the camera or wearing something that obstructs the view of their face or hair. (Note: head scarves can be worn for religious purposes). The subject’s eyes have to be open.
Racism is not one of these good reasons.
“Subject’s eyes are closed,” the automated text box informed Lee when he selected the photograph to be used. His photograph did not meet the criteria.
Lee’s eyes were open, not closed. Visibly open. The problem was actually that Lee is Taiwanese. He has naturally small eyes and hooded eyelids. The facial recognition software detected a deviation from its norm which it didn’t understand. The technology could not compute difference, and therefore the photograph did not meet their criteria.
Racism, when it boils down to it, is the inability to compute difference. Even our technology is racist. This isn’t surprising considering racism is a deeply embedded part of society. But it’s still troubling.
There isn’t an example of an “acceptable” photograph of an apparently Asian person on the New Zealand passport website, despite Asians making up approximately 12 percent of the population.
Three rejection messages later, Lee called the Department of Internal Affairs. “I tried different ones and no luck, so I rang the office they said it’s to do with the shadow in my eyes and uneven lighting in the face,” Lee told Daily Mail Australia. Lee eventually went to the Australian Post, where he took a photo meeting the criteria.
Although he found the extra time spent renewing his passport annoying, Lee considered the ordeal a programming error, and not problematic on a larger scale.
This photo went viral after Lee shared it on social media. Although he posted it to Facebook because he thought it was amusing, Facebook users immediately voiced their concerns that it was also racist. Lee has stated that he was not offended by the experience and doesn’t believe it to be a race issue. Many of Lee’s Asian and non-Asian friends also found the post funny.
Lee posted the following Snapchat with the caption, “Hope they accept this one.”
Other users commented saying they had similar experiences. “Every time,” said one user. “My life,” commented another Asian female, tagging six of her friends in the post.
Humor and racism are not mutually exclusive. Racism is often dismissed on grounds that it’s “a joke.” Excusing racist behavior at the expense of humor, in a way, condones its existence. At the very least, it lets it continue.
Although Lee’s approach to the snafu has been entirely positive, other people are perceiving it as a problem with the system.
On the passport website, suggestions for users who receive a message about their eyes being closed is: “Retake the photo and make sure the eyes are open.” Change who you are, then you’ll be accepted.
Is this really the message we want our technology to send?
Lee told The Tempest, “I was actually quite impressed how in the past 80 years, we got from Turing machines to a software that could tell the eyes are smaller than usual.”
This incredibly sophisticated technology is remarkable, but it should be designed to be more inclusive.