Racially diverse emojis miss the point

Emojis, those cute little symbols on your phones, never really had a race problem. So why are we creating one?

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They’re here, some say, “at last”: emojis, those universally coded images that punctuate text messages and social media comments or serve as symbolic stand-ins for feelings best expressed, say, by ghost with tongue sticking out or women with bunny ears, will finally reflect racial realities. According to many reports, Apple has rolled out five new shades of old emoji for the developers testing its upcoming version of iOS and OS X; while there’s no announcement of plans for Android devices, one expects that will come with time.

It’s a big deal, if only for the massively widening scope of emoji use. According to New York magazine, a 2013 survey found that 74 per cent of Americans and 82 per cent of those in China said they used emoji or Facebook stickers in message apps—numbers that have certainly only increased since then. For those of a certain set, emojis are grammatical second nature, a way to convey emotions, to sexually tempt, to show support, to communicate across generations; they’ve exploded in popularity since they first developed in 1999, and were universally coded for mass devices in October 2010.

And there is a lot to say about the normalization of our media, about the belief that whiteness is our baseline, even as Caucasians become a racial minority in countries around the world. It is, no doubt, a problem; look no further than the marginalization of African-Americans from the Academy Awards, or the quiet neutering of Asian actors and actresses. A New York Times feature just this weekend helped to expose the insidious bias against black people in photography: “In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin,” wrote Teju Cole. “Beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as ‘normal.’ ” Across a wide swath of pop culture, the idea that white is the standard has become ingrained.

The problem is, the idea and execution of racially representative emojis completely misses the point.

For starters, emojis never really had a race problem. The invention of Shigetaka Kurita, emojis have an Asian root that has in many ways been whitewashed over, with many of the original ones depicting Japanese-centric images such as a bowing businessman; it is why many of the food items in Unicode’s emojis are Japanese, from ramen to tempura shrimp. According to the Wall Street Journal, “initially supposed to depict characters with inhuman, cartoon-like complexions—for example, a yellow or orange colour.”

So the standard baseline in emojis was never really white—that’s a later interpretation that society has applied. If anything, the race problem is with Unicode, the consortium that codes symbols and images so they can be displayed across the world’s many platforms and devices, which took Kurita’s initial offering, sidelined many of the Japan-centric ones, and produced a selection of 722. (Personal research finds that Apple devices currently feature 845 emojis.)

And the reality of racial representation is that it will, invariably, leave someone out and leave someone unhappy. It has already begun; social media has noted there is no one with freckles and red hair among the six new colour options for each emoji. The backlash has started, too, as some have been furious over the bright yellow of what they are seeing as the “East Asian” skin colour—ironic, since they’re actually referring to the aforementioned “cartoon-like” emoji complexion, as Asians are not technically depicted at all, given the fact the new emojis reportedly hew to the Fitzpatrick scale, a “dermatological standard” for judging race. (The Fitzpatrick scale did not adequately measure non-white skin colour for years after its 1975 creation, dumping all non-white skin into one category.) There’s perhaps nothing more problematic than Chinese people seeing themselves as the cartoonish, bright yellow initially designed to mean literally nothing. But anyway.

That doesn’t even cover the fact that racial representation in emojis squelches the very thing that makes emojis tick, which is their loose, ambiguous interpretative quality. New York Times tech reporter Jenna Wortham expounded on her favourite emoji, the tempura shrimp, in womanzine‘s emoji issue: “It reminds me of the way I feel when I’m salty, in a prickly ball of funk that requires a couch, a fetal position, a bottle of wine and Netflix—in that exact order—and that’s how I use it to communicate a foul mood to one friend. With another, however, it only comes up in conversation about Mariah Carey. Something about her complexion and the way she’s always stuffed into a tube-ish dress works as a proxy for a tiny cartoon image of a fried shrimp.” And a friend of mine recently revealed that she occasionally sexts with emojis—the otherwise unassuming seashell and eggplant stand in for human anatomy, apparently—and while it was a strange crash course to receive, it was a reminder that the fun of emojis are that they mean nothing, and therefore, can mean anything.

Indeed, of course, no one believes a penis is really an eggplant. And yet, we are not crowing about the accurate representation of human genitals in emoji. So why do we really care about racial representation?

Unlike most languages, less precision serves emoji better. Emojis’ generality is exactly why it’s taken off as a universal language, not necessarily the efforts of some secretive coding consortium. Emoji are our modern-day shibboleths—they’re defined not by colour, but by context.

And while it’s hardly wrong to get our hackles up over race, it seems odd that the hill we are choosing to defend is the one where the baseline was an intentionally preposterous complexion for a fun thing whose use is derived by its ambiguity. So let’s not let racial politics needlessly creep into our woman doing the salsa: May your fist emoji mean fist-bump or solidarity or I’m-punching-you, no matter what shade it is.