Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Emoji, Racism, and Entitlement

There’s a chain of articles that I stumbled through today with all the grace of someone falling down a flight of stairs, angrily cursing with each bounce.

An article by Andrew McGill of the Atlantic was the originator:

When they were first launched in 2015, emoji skin tones corrected an obvious wrong. Previously, if a black man or a Latino woman wanted to text a friend the thumbs-up emoji on an iPhone, a white hand would show up. The Unicode Consortium’s solution made the new default color a Simpsons yellow and allowed users to tint certain emoji with one of five skin tones, ranging from “pale white” to “darkest brown.” […]

But as emoji with skin tones spread to Twitter, Facebook, and workplace chat applications like Slack, I noticed something I hadn’t expected: While I saw plenty of Thumbs up and Thumbs up, almost no one I knew used the lightest skin tone, or even the second-lightest. Indeed, as a white man who tends to be either pale or sunburnt, I had never considered using it myself. When I did switch briefly to the lightest tone at work, it felt… weird. […]

Perhaps the squeamishness on the part of whites has more to do with the acknowledgement that only white people hold this special privilege; to use the white emoji is to express a solidarity with people of color that does not exist.

So far, this makes sense: depending on the context, using white emoji can either feel like a way to represent your own skin tone, or it can feel oppressive for the reasons elucidated by McGill.

Here’s where this whole thing breaks down:

When white people opt out of racemoji in favor of the “default” yellow, those symbols become even more closely associated with whiteness — and the notion that white is the only raceless color.

Eli Schiff adds:

It follows that in using a yellow emoji, a white person is presuming whiteness as a default, and therefore reinforcing racist prejudice by preferring whiteness to be the default signifier.

And John Gruber, too:

I’ve been wondering about the decision to use yellow ever since iOS started supporting the skin tone variants. It still seems “sort of white”, in a way that a Smurf-y blue or Hulk-y green would not.

I’ve never questioned the choice of yellow as the default emoji colour primarily because it’s the generic colour assigned to little smiley faces since we called them “emoticons” or “smileys” back in the days of iChat, AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger.

Andrew Yang:

That white people think yellow emoji are white seems more a problem of entitlement and appropriation than of yellow emoji.

Perfectly said. In no sense is the colour yellow presumed to be representative of whiteness, or even race as a whole. It is cartoonishly unrealistic, serving only to enhance the emotion, not to convey any kind of racial characteristics.

Where Schiff’s post goes off the rails — and why I’m surprised Gruber linked to it — is where he paints white people as being oppressed by all this:

It is therefore quite strange that yellow (white) emoji were set as the default, given that not assuming all users to be white was the entire premise behind making the new diverse set of emoji. In this way, the Unicode Consortium’s efforts to achieve a more inclusive solution only served to doubly reinforce a racism of defaults. […]

It is not simply that it is problematic for whites to use the white emoji, but so too is it racist for them to use the brown shades and the yellow default. In sum, it is racist for whites to use any emoji.

There are two choices going forward: either white users should refrain from using emoji, or an alternative default must be drawn. Perhaps green, blue or purple would be an ideal choice as they don’t have racial connotations.

What utter horse shit.

The initial emoji spec was white-only, and the change to yellow as a default and the addition of other skin tones was an inclusive move. The idea that white people are, for some reason, racially persecuted by emoji and are left with no choice but to not use them is nonsense.

Furthermore, the universal choice of yellow is not by accident and is not defined by the spec. Microsoft’s race-neutral colour of choice was grey, but that was ugly. It could be green or blue, but that would just look ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

Use whatever you like while being cognizant of its context. And don’t be a racist dick. It’s not hard.


Update: More grey Microsoft emoji, which they’ve since updated to be — big surprise — yellow by default.

Update: The screenshot that Schiff includes purportedly showing that the default yellow left-facing hand is considered “white” by Unicode was taken out of context.

Update: Per Ken Weingold in a Slack chat, the yellow smiley face originates with Harvey Ball in 1963. I’d say that the yellow instant messenger emoticons and today’s yellow emoji simply reference that, and nothing more.

Update: Fine, I’ll tackle one more thing that’s been nagging me since publishing this. Schiff closes his “Racemoji” post so:

This is an example of the meaningful political and cultural dilemmas that designers would not have had to consider 40 years ago. Back then, we had more homogenous societies, so inclusive representation was a less pressing concern. Now, designers must be more considerate and take seriously the power of defaults.

This has been biting at me since I read the initial post, but I’ve been having a hard time coming up with an adequate response.

Forty years ago, people of other races still existed; they were, however, ignored and persecuted. We should have treated everyone equally then, but we didn’t. We still don’t, as evidenced by the first white-only rollout of emoji.

It’s not “considerate” to recognize that there are non-white people in the world. It’s not even basic decency. It should be an expectation.

Schiff has updated his post to include Google’s proposal (PDF) for more gender-equal emoji, particularly in regards to the suite of characters that reflect specific professions. Again, this should have been a given. However, as tech companies remain dominated by white men, consideration of different ethnicities and genders remains an afterthought.