If you belong to generation Z, ignore this post. If you are, say a baby boomer, or were lucky enough to be born earlier, continue reading. We are talking some ancient stuff not today’s photo effects.

We are talking about Shirley cards that kids of today do not know zilch about. Shirley cards are to early color photography what floppies are to the history of data storage, or what the classy you of yesteryears is to the fickle kids of today.

Shirley cards, originally developed to adjust skin tones in photos, were quite racists. And like all racists, they looked down upon skin tone that was anything but fair.

The card pictured a beautiful woman flaunting the ‘ideal skin’ tone who was used as a reference when developing photos. A beautiful Caucasian woman. As if the not-so-subtle endorsement of an ideal ‘highly reflective white skin’ was not enough, the chemicals that were to be used for the development of dark skin tones were completely left out of the picture (pun intended) development process for years!

shirley

Guess who ended the racism? Not Malcom X! It was the furniture and chocolate makers that questioned the racial bias of Shirley features.

Furniture makers complained that dark grain wood was not captured well on cameras. Chocolate makers said that, thanks to Shirley cards, dark chocolate was indistinguishable from milk chocolate!

Well, now you have your favorite candy makers to thank for racial equality.

While that may have ended well, the ghost of unintentional (?) racism still haunts camera manufacturers. Take for example:

  • The HP media smart computers that were outfitted with motion tracking cameras – completely useless when tracking Black people.
  • Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect also had problems tracking Black people.
  • Google’s ‘Photos’ app debacle was in a class of its own. It took the cake by identifying two black people with ‘Gorillas’. A ‘case of mistaken identity’ that sent Google’s PR execs in a wild face-saving flurry.

These individual cases are no doubt isolated and unrelated, but they definitely beg the question: Can technology be racist?