Apple rolled out a new line of racialized emojis last week through their iOS 8.3. Originating in Japan, emojis are popular symbols by which people emote via text. Previously, the people-shaped emojis appeared with either a bright yellow hue or peach (i.e., white) skin. The new emojis offer a more diverse color palate, and users can select the skin tones that best represent them. It’s all very United Colors of Benetton.
While many applaud the new emojis— such Dean Obeidallah writing for CNN who announced “Finally, Apple’s Emojis Reflect America”—this has been far from a win for racial equality.
First there were the (pretty egregious) technical glitches. It turns out that for those who have not yet updated to iOS 8.3, the diverse emojis appear as aliens. This means that non-white symbolically translates to non-human. Similarly, as Nathan Jurgenson discovered and then sent via email, using all of the skin tones together shows up as white…”Too much diversity!! Retreat!! Retreat!!”
Then there was the immediate racist bigotry. Writing for the Washington Post, Paige Tutt says it is unsurprising to find people using the racialized emojis in incredibly offensive ways, like this gem she shared in her article:
And finally, there was the yellow-as-default. When selecting an emoji, bright yellow is the supposedly neutral default from which the emojis can racially diverge. The problem, however, is that yellow is not racially neutral. It is, I argue, definitively white. Let me explain.
Sociologists West and Fenstermaker show that race is a key characteristic by which we categorize bodies. Their thesis is that like gender, “doing race” is not optional. That is, we racialize each other. In this vein, we racialize representations of each other—such as emojis. In American culture, which privileges whiteness, white is the presumed racial category. Representations that fall outside of the human color spectrum are, by default, coded as white.
Humans are not bright yellow and yet, yellow is not racially neutral. Rather, yellow’s very neutrality, in the U.S., signifies white. Both readers and writers of yellow know this, if not explicitly. In fact, it is the implicity of whiteness that makes it so powerful. For example, nothing about the Simpsons should read white. Marge has blue hair for goodness sake. And yet, the Simpsons are a white family. Hence, Apu and Carl are brown, both raced vis-à-vis the rest of the Springfield citizenry. Similarly, and to move away from yellow specifically, the hyenas in Lion King talk with urban black vernacular and Sebastian from the Little Mermaid is Jamaican (and sings about the ocean being awesome because you don’t have to get a job under there). We live in a culture of white-unless-signified-otherwise.
Although it is easy (and correct) to read this as all as racially insensitive on the part of Apple, the issue is much broader and far deeper. The Apple emoji case is a microcosm of race relations in the United States. We want really bad to be inclusive but are so invested, so inculcated, so primed with the white racial frame that good intentions are easily ensnared by the logics we work to break out of. Let’s be clear about that process. Yellow signifies white, but so too would green, purple, or orange. The problem of emoji racial representation is a problem of cultural race relations, as hardware and software are always products of existing social arrangements.
Apple’s emojis can’t solve the race problem. They never could.
Follow Jenny Davis on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis