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'Make Me Asian' App Sparks Online Backlash

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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 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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