The vexing issue of emoji colors

February 14, 2022 • 9:30 am

It was understandable when emojis became “diverse”; after all, if you’re sending an emoji of yourself, you want it to look at least reasonably accurate. Using the new choices I have on email, though, this is the best I could do for a Jerry emoji:

Hi! I’m Jerry!

That pretty much sucks, as my hair isn’t brown, it’s gray, but there’s no gray hair to be had (is that ageism?). I don’t wear tee-shirts like that, either. But at least my glasses are reasonably accurate, and my skin tone, which is sort of sallow, is okay too. But I’ll never use this thing, as I rarely use emojis except in personal emails, and those are limited to 1) smiley face, 2) cat smiley face, 3) cat smiley face with hearts, 4) cat face with tears, and 5) the mallard drake emoji (there are no hens, which seems to me a kind of sexism, as I can’t represent Honey).  And I almost never use any emojis in professional correspondence.

But when this diversification started—and there are tons of “people” emojis—the result was predictable: some people felt left out, as there’s only a limited number of possible human features, including skin color, that can be cobbled together.  And each emoji has to be approved by an Emoji Czar.

And so, using your tax money, the increasingly woke National Public Radio (NPR) recently published this article (click on screenshot to read):

The issue, of course, is that some people don’t see themselves as “accurately represented” (we’re talking only about skin tone here) because they fall between the six options available, which include “Simpsons Yellow”.  Here are a couple of beefs from the NPR piece:

Heath Racela identifies as three-quarters white and one-quarter Filipino. When texting, he chooses a yellow emoji instead of a skin tone option, because he feels it doesn’t represent any specific ethnicity or color.

He doesn’t want people to view his texts in a particular way. He wants to go with what he sees as the neutral option and focus on the message.

“I present as very pale, very light skinned. And if I use the white emoji, I feel like I’m betraying the part of myself that’s Filipino,” Racela, of Littleton, Mass., said. “But if I use a darker color emoji, which maybe more closely matches what I see when I look at my whole family, it’s not what the world sees, and people tend to judge that.”

This is screwed up in so many ways. What Racela apparently means by saying that he “presents as pale” is that he “looks white”. But if he uses the whitest emoji, he’s betraying his Filipino genes, which are more apparent in the skin color of his family.  This raises important questions:

a. Why does he need to present the skin tone of his whole family when he’s writing a personal email?

b.  What is the importance of “people judging” here? And what are they judging? His failure to represent the color of his family in a personal email, or the color of his family itself, which people presumably don’t know. It’s unclear because Heath isn’t speaking clearly.

c. Is this really important? Seriously? Someone needs to get a life, including the authors of this woke NPR piece.

Another beef:

“I use the brown one that matches me,” said Sarai Cole, an opera singer in Germany. “I have some friends who use the brown ones, too, but they are not brown themselves. This confuses me.”

Cole is originally from California and identifies as Black and an American Descendant of Slavery. She said that while she was not offended when a non-brown friend used a dark emoji, she would like to understand why.

“I think it would be nice if it is their default, but if they’re just using it with me or other brown people, I would want to look into that deeper [JAC: a “deep dive”] and know why they’re doing that,” she said.

Once again, do you need to subject your friends to an inquisition—make no mistake, that’s what Cole’s “looking deeper” really means—to find out why, if they’re not “brown people,” they’re using brown emojis. Is this transracialism, like Rachel Dolezal, a sign of solidarity, or something darker in meaning?

But wait, there’s more: the problem of “emoji-switching”, or “passing as yellow”:

Jennifer Epperson, from Houston, identifies as Black and said she changed her approach depending on who she was talking to.

“I use the default emoji, the yellow-toned one for professional settings, and then I use the dark brown emoji for friends and family,” she said. “I just don’t have the emotional capacity to unpack race relations in the professional setting.”

Ah, the emotional labor of “unpacking race relations” by using colored emojis in an email! The solution here is simple: stop using emojis in professional settings. Is that so hard? Nobody expects you to “unpack race relations” (whatever that means; it’s really just postmodern jargon) in a work-related email. In fact, there’s no need to use emojis in professional emails. They started as a way to convey emotions lest your words be misunderstood, but you can be properly understood if you just write clearly.

Finally, we have the whole issue of “representing yourself” by skin tone alone, as though that is the most important aspect of yourself that you want to show the world. Forget about the content of your character; you have to get the color of your skin precisely right. More beefing, to the point where I might suggest a therapeutic intervention:

Zara Rahman, a researcher and writer in Berlin, argues that the skin tone emojis make white people confront their race as people of color often have to do. For example, she shared Sarai Cole’s confusion when someone who is white uses a brown emoji, so she asked some friends about it.

“One friend who is white told me that it was because he felt that white people were overrepresented in the space that he was using the emoji, so he wanted to kind of try and even the playing field,” Rahman said. “For me, it does signal a kind of a lack of awareness of your white privilege in many ways.”

Rahman, who in 2018 wrote the article for the Daily Dot, “The problem with emoji skin tones that no one talks about,” also challenges the view that the yellow emoji — similar to the characters from The Simpsons — is neutral, because on that show, “there were yellow people, and there were brown people and there were Black people.”

She said there was a default in society to associate whiteness with being raceless, and the emojis gave white people an option to make their race explicit.

“I completely hear some people are just exhausted [from] having to do that. Many people of color have to do that every day and are confronted with race every day,” Rahman said. “But for many white people, they’ve been able to ignore it, whether that’s subconsciously or consciously, their whole lives.”

You know, I’ve never experienced white guilt when using an emoji, but perhaps it’s because the only human emojis I use are the smiley or frowny faces in Simpsons Yellow.  Now I see that I’ve either been a good antiracist by not using emojis like the white one I made above, for I’d only be flaunting my privilege; but I could also be deemed racist when using the yellow one, as I’m either denigrating “yellow people” (presumably Asians) or, worse, assuming the very identity of an Asian.

What all this shows is that NPR needs to curb its wokeness, and stop publishing these kinds of article about people having nervous breakdowns about their emojis. But, importantly, it also shows clearly the racialization of the entire country: the fact that the most important thing you need to say about yourself—the key to representing yourself—is is the color of your skin. And as long as people feel that this is their defining characteristic, that’s how long this mishigass will continue and our society will keep engage in identity politics along color lines (even though color is a “social construct.”)

I’ve written too much, I fear, but this kind of stuff both amuses and angers me. It makes me realize how permeated society is by racialization, how important it is for people to be represented by their skin color, and, in the end, makes me despair that this division isn’t going away any time soon. But that’s the subject of the next post.

In the meantime, if you want to read more emoji-beefing, click on the article below from The Verge, or read Rahman’s 2018 article from The Daily Dot.

58 thoughts on “The vexing issue of emoji colors

  1. “But if I use a darker color emoji, which maybe more closely matches what I see when I look at my whole family, it’s not what the world sees, and people tend to judge that.” What the hell kind of people is this guy hanging around with?!

  2. The solution here is simple: stop using emojis in professional settings. Is that so hard?

    I use it during work meetings on Teams; it conveys agreement with someone’s point in a way that is less disruptive than making a vocal comment and less effort than typing one into the chat.

    I’ve never thought about the color of the hand as being racially significant. I’ve had experts tell me to change my own slides and GUIs before to ensure color blind people and people with vision problems could see my graphics well. I assumed the cartoony bright yellow of the thumbs up was picked for the same “design a good interface” reason.

      1. Well both are more specific. I mean neither “ok” nor “funny” when I use it during a meeting. In contrast the ‘thumbs up’ can convey ‘agree’ OR ‘ok’ OR ‘funny’ depending on context, so in that respect it’s better; a single option useful in more situations.

    1. Yes, it’s helpful. I always assumed the yellow color denoted that it is a cartoon symbol. I don’t have bright yellow skin. I don’t give a sh!t about this stuff.

    2. If anyone really wants a more accurate-looking representation of themselves, software exists, and keeps evolving. A couple of friends have such avatars, and there is some difference between them and the standard choices. One will even work from head shot photo.

      But why be limited by your emoji? What if you’re going on a trip? Or lecturing on cruise ship where you also need formal attire? Or wearing waders to rescue a duck?

      Assemble your own LEGO® minifig, and photograph it into a custom emoji set. Change outfits, hairstyles, and any accessory you might want— backpack, net, teddy bear, microscope, books, etc. And with any facial expression you want!

    1. Blue: marginalizing depressed persons
      Violet: appropriating LGBTQIA+ culture
      Green: trivializing environmental protection
      Orange: dog whistling Trump supporters
      Red: denigrating First Nation people

      Maybe gray could be acceptable?

      1. Why don’t “they” allow us to choose whatever color emoji we want? Like changing a font color. I want a tie-dyed hand, dammit!

  3. I was going to say that they should have gone with Simpsons yellow because nobody is that colour in real life, unless they are very sick. But actually, Simpsons yellow is a proxy for white. The Asian and black characters in The Simpsons are closer in colour to what you would expect for their ethnic origin.

    Personally, I don’t care about what colours are available. We can’t realistically cater for all skin tones, so this just seems like another performative act that the racist will laugh about.

  4. FWIW, there are ways to take a photo of oneself and “emojify” it so you have one that sorta looks like you. Some of my friends’ “memojis” do this, and they have gray hair, too (don’t we all now?)

    1. You can choose hair color. People color their hair – or wear wigs or extensions at various occasions – until the 80s when it seems (to me, I have no statistics) they lose interest – or hair.

  5. The fairly simple small emojis[*], such as discussed in the NPR piece, are represented in transmission or on web sites as one or two Unicode codepoints (characters) . And how they look is a matter of how the platform implements a glyph (visual appearance) for those codepoints.

    The bigger ones, such as the one near the top of this article, are actually images, saved and presented via some image format. (And technically not really emojis) They may be offered as a minor feature of some service such as youjr email provider. Or you can get them from companies / sites that let you have myriad options, and download and store yours. One such is called Bitmoji. If you try Bitmoji I think you can find shades of gray hair.



    *I am so happy that wide popular usage has apparently agreed on letting us use a regular English plural, “emojis”. When first popularized, the people pushing them were insistent that “emoji” must be used for both singular and plural.

    1. Me too (not this specific story). I find myself yelling at the radio playing NPR (news).

      I pulled my sustainer support (30 years!) last fall because my local, which used to be superb, because they became an identity politics station.

      I still listen; but not nearly as much. I now often listen to podcasts (right now!). Which does worry me a little — I don’t want to live in an echo chamber.

        1. Most of the comedy shows are good.

          They exhibit a severe Woke bias in their other reporting. Mainly errors of omission; but thoroughly planned (best I can tell).

  6. I’d use blue ones if they were available. Except then everyone would think I was either sad or making fun of people who are sad.

    1. If you like, you can use them to make fun of people who think you are making fun of people who are sad. You might even get interviewed by NPR!

  7. Why use any of that emoji stuff at all?
    It is certainly true the NPR is woke and getting increasingly hard to listen to.
    ” A little cranky are you J”.

  8. “In fact, there’s no need to use emojis in professional emails. They started as a way to convey emotions lest your words be misunderstood, but you can be properly understood if you just write clearly.”

    I don’t use emojis at work, either, but have you not seen the dreadful state of reading comprehension these days, Jerry? You can write as clearly as you can (and I often put way too much effort into making my emails as clear and concise as possible), and someone will still misinterpret it.

  9. What happened to emoticons?

    Aren’t emoticons the full expression of geek wit?

    Or even better, plain text ascii art

    At one time, confusing to those who were not in the know – clever – taking great pains to make a small point, with humor.

    Emojis … shudder…. ever see The Matrix?

  10. I can’t help feeling that in an effort to find something ‘even more Woke’ to be ‘outraged’ about people are chasing finer and finer discriminations.

    I have a vision of Wiley Coyote running harder and harder against a big rubber band and making less and less headway trying to catch the Road Runner. At some point Wiley will lose traction and be hurled backwards.

    Meep meep.

  11. If this is really something that people worry or care about, I despair, there are far more important things to concern humanity.
    We are doomed!
    Incidentally, I do use them only for personal messages, always yellow, mostly cats or paw prints, the odd heart and that’s about the lot.

  12. Would Picasso have used a blue emoji during his blue period? Oh, wait, Picasso wouldn’t have had
    to use emojis.
    My gripe about NPR is different. While officially “non-commercial”, a major NPR station in my region
    floods its air with “underwriter’s messages” which are, in plain English, commercials.

  13. I use emoji’s on WhatsApp, and occasionally in comments, but only the hard yellow ones. They originally were yellow.
    And not even a Chinese with bilirubinaemia looks that yellow.

    1. Me too. Sometimes I use the colon and close brackets – 🙂 – as a smile, which can get changed into a smiley emoji after being sent.

  14. What the human race needs is a true and committed arch-enemy, bent on the species’s total destruction, to give them something worthwhile to worry about and maybe even to bring them together for once in a common cause.

    I’m occasionally tempted to volunteer for the position.

    1. That was the plot behind Alan Moore’s comic book series and movie: The Watchmen

      Too bad the human race doesn’t see climate change as the “arch-enemy, bent on the species’ total destruction” that it is.

      1. It needs to be personal and persistent, I think…so that even if one attack is foiled, more will always be coming. Of course, Entropy provides that in the long run, but it can’t lose, so it may be too disheartening.

  15. This is why I don’t let irrelevant skin tone or age dates define me (or people I interact with).

    However, today emojis are used in unofficial professional settings in apps or terse emails. So of course I intend use a yellow generic (male, as it happens) face or standing figure if that becomes necessary.

    Besides that my melanin-tail-of-the-normal-distribution-production genetic heritage problematize the “skin color racists” assumptions of my nationality, my self chosen nurture problematize the “dance skill racists” similar assumptions. They never ask neutrally but biased: “You can’t be a Swede!?” A racialization, indeed.

  16. This will be crude and rough – but … well …

    How far is emoji diversity supposed to go?

    As it is reducing H. sapiens into a data file, there are lots of details to account for. Do I have to go into it, because it will get uncomfortable – ? Or do the factors I suggest not count because they detract from diversity, inclusion, and equity of literally superficial perceptions of individuals?

    I suppose many company representatives’ reply would be “watch this space – and wait until the next product launch!”

  17. This is the first time I have heard the phrase ‘Cole […] identifies as Black and an American Descendant of Slavery.’ It is a fascinating way to watch someone of mixed-race heritage his/her erase non-black ancestry. Cole may well have had some sympathetic ancestors whom she/he refused to acknowledge. I hope people try to learn from all of their ancestors, whether oppressors or oppressed.

  18. What a wonderful time to be alive. People will always find things to fret about, but few people across human history have lived a life of such ease and safety that they have the time to fret about such trivialities.

  19. Alternatively, the approach to Titania McGrath’s avatar was to select by calculation a countenance which should not exist in real life.

  20. Thumbs up emoji?! As somebody with a slightly deformed thumb I am massively traumatized by the total absence of non- standard thumbs in the thumbs up emoji cannon.

    On another subject: how long before ’emoji’ becomes a verb?

  21. Your assertion that NPR is funded by “your tax money” perpetuates a longstanding myth about NPR funding. NPR has never received more than 1-2% of its total funding from government sources. Please see the last line in the following link:
    Although NPR Member stations do get about 12% of their income from government sources, this also hardly qualifies as significantly tax payer funded.
    The fact is that the vast majority of funding for Public Radio in the United States is from private sources as the linked article clearly shows.

    1. “… this also hardly qualifies as significantly tax payer funded.”

      … if that funding materialized as cash in the pocket of the local librarian, would that also not be “significant” for the citizens who chipped in?

  22. Emoji’s are fine conversation stoppers, just answer everything with an emoji. The color of the emoji doesn’t matter in my experience, at least not for me. If someone wants a yellow emoji, just give it to him or her. 🙂

  23. Let’s just go back to the character ones–it’s simpler. 🙂

    Of course my character one got turned in to an image. I guess I can’t even do the character ones if I wanted to. 🙁

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