Seeking Representation in the Wide, White World of Emojis

The great thing about emojis, the pictorial images that can be inserted into smartphone messages, is that they help us convey meaning, emotions and ideas that we might not be able to express otherwise. Sometimes, a certain gesture or facial expression can capture a feeling better than words can; a single emoji of an angel (angel ) or clasped hands (hands) can take the place of a “thanks so much, you’re a saint!” and an emoji with an open grin and tears (tears) is all that’s needed to say “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying!” But what if you can’t represent yourself with emojis at all?

For people of color, the image options are far from resonant. The standardized yellow faces (yellow1yellow2yellow3 ) are meant to be racially ambiguous, but recent criticism has drawn attention to the fact that they just don’t allow racial and ethnic diversity to be conveyed. Further, the little emoji people who dance and kiss (dance1dance2dance3dance4), as well as the hands that are posed in a variety of gestures ( hand4 hand3hand2 hand1), are all blatantly white. The two “emojis of color” that exist at all depict completely stereotyped images of nonwhite faces: an ivory-skinned face with slanted eyes sporting a Gua Pi Mao hat, associated with the Qing dynasty (man1), and a wide-eyed, brown-skinned man wearing a non-descript turban (man2). It’s unclear whether the inclusion of these two is an insufficient attempt at diversity or simply a racist joke.

This lack of emoji diversity has not gone unnoticed; mounting concerns culminated in a petition this past August, signed by nearly 5,000 people, calling for greater diversity in the emoji world. The Unicode Consortium, the tech organization that encodes emojis for all types of smartphones, has responded with promises for an update—Unicode Version 8.0, scheduled for release in June 2015— that will feature, among 250 other new emojis, a “skin tone modifier.” This will allow users to choose from five different colors based on the Fitzpatrick scale, the system used by dermatologists to classify how different skin types respond to UV light, from Type I (pale white, always burns) to Type VI (deeply pigmented dark brown to black, never burns). The same selection of faces and people will be available, but users will have the option to either choose one of these colors as standard for all their emojis or to choose a swatch for each individual one.


Critics of the proposed update insist that emojis are used for expression rather than personal representation, and that adding racial diversity to the options will only create tension and division. Controversy would develop over who can use nonwhite emojis and when, or they could even be used to perpetuate racism by being used insensitively or with a racist aim. But the argument that emojis aren’t meant for people to represent themselves overlooks the fact that for people of color, emojis can’t be separated from representation. As a white person, I have the privilege of being able to use the white emojis without thinking about representation; I might use the “thumbs up” emoji to indicate that I agree with something, and not to represent my own hand, but this ability to overlook the representational aspect is an advantage afforded by my whiteness. While I can easily use the emoji as a tool for expression, a nonwhite person with the desire to express the same sentiment must do so with a white hand—and for this person it would be impossible not to notice the incongruity. Daria Thames, a black student in her second year at Tufts University, expresses this sense of frustration. “It feels weird to put an emoji of a blonde girl with a crown on (crown) in my texts to represent how I’m feeling,” she says, “or the two girls holding hands with the pigtails (pigtails). I mean for it to resemble me and my sister, but we look nothing like that. It makes me feel like I’m the one who doesn’t understand the emojis, but really the people who make them don’t understand the need to represent all humans.”

So the Unicode Update 8.0 is an improvement—but it is far from a perfect solution. Five skin tone categories don’t come close to satisfying the amount of different racial and ethnic identities that people need to represent themselves; a 2013 National Geographic article reported on the growing number of people with multiracial identities and the limitations of our current racial categorization system, established in the late 1700s by a German scientist who divided humans into the “natural varieties” of red, yellow, brown, black and white. Writer Lisa Funderburg calls this system “both erroneous (since geneticists have demonstrated that race is biologically not a reality) and essential (since living with race and racism is).” The US Census Bureau didn’t even let people check off more than one race, the article points out, until 2000—but 6.8 million people did do so the first year, and by 2010 that number had risen by 32 percent. So the addition of five skin-tone options in the Unicode update is only the tip of the iceberg of racial complexity, and there will still be no way to create an interracial emoji group such as a family with a black mother and a white father. Further, the emoji people are and will remain all clearly gendered, fitting neatly into binary stereotypes, and the couples shown kissing and holding hands are all heterosexual pairs.

In the meantime, however, the problem is increasingly being recognized. In a recent skit on Saturday Night Live, cast member Sasheer Zamata, with scathing humor, notes that “Unicode, the company that creates emojis, thought that instead of one black person we needed two different kinds of dragons, nine different cat faces, and three generations of a white family.” She continues, “If I want to refer to myself with an emoji, this is what I have to use,” showing the grey moon emoji (moon). To call attention to how truly absurd this is, Zamata says, “Even the black power fist is white!” (fist)

That emojis are so uniformly white reflects the larger problem of the homogeneity in mainstream media as a whole; people of color are vastly underrepresented in advertisements, movies and television shows in our society. Many people don’t even notice the lack of diversity in emojis, as white is often equated with neutral. Further, this issue reflects the striking lack of diversity in tech companies. Of all the US workers at Google and Facebook, only 2% are black, and fewer than 5% are Hispanic, according to the Associated Press. At tech companies across the globe, only 1/3 of the workforce is women. It’s clear that this whitewashed set of emojis was created by an equally homogenous team.

As the discussion involving emojis and the power of representation continues, we are faced with the question of just how diverse emojis need to be. Should they include different eye shapes, hair textures, and head coverings? Is it possible to become too literal in attempting to create a collection that allows everyone the possibility of self-representation? Would a better solution be a single, distinctly non-human skin tone, such as purple or blue? After all, much of the emojis’ appeal comes from their simplicity; as seen in the stripped-down, cartoonish figures of artist Keith Haring, there is a sincerity and a good-naturedness that comes with an uncomplicated and universal image.

But making emojis in a uniform skin tone does not help us pretend that we are all of the same race. And if you can’t find even the most basic elements of your identity reflected in images that are meant to help you express yourself, then the Unicode system is more alienating than universal. While the new batch of emojis coming out in June is a promising step forward, diverse representations of humans remain scarce in mainstream media. What emojis really express, then, is that our society remains deeply inequitable —with or without a “kissing face with smiling eyes” of color.

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