‘I am white person, and despite there being a range of skin tones available for emoji these days, I still just go for the original Simpsons-esque yellow. Is this insensitive to people of color?”
I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint what any group of people might find, categorically, insensitive – and I won’t venture to speak as a white person on behalf of people of color. But your apprehension about which emoji skin tone to use has clearly weighed on many white people’s heads since 2015, when the Unicode Consortium — the mysterious organization that sets standards for character encoding in software systems around the world — introduced the modifiers. A 2018 University of Edinburgh study of Twitter data confirmed that the lightest skin tones are the least used and that most whites, like you, opt for the original yellow.
It’s not hard to see why. While it may seem intuitive to choose the skin tone that most closely resembles yours, some white users worry that drawing attention to their race by texting a pale high five (or worse, a raised fist) can be understood as celebrating or showing off. The writer Andrew McGill noted in a 2016 Atlantic Ocean article that many white people he spoke to feared the white emoji “felt uncomfortably close to showing ‘white pride,’ with all the baggage of bigotry that entails.” Darker skin tones are a more obvious choice for white users and are generally interpreted as grossly appropriated or, at best, misguided attempts at ally.
That leaves yellow, the Esperanto of emoji skin tones, which seems to offer a universal or neutral form of pictographic expression, one that requires no acknowledgment of race – or, for that matter, embodiment. (Unicode calls it a “non-human” skin tone.) While this logic may sound good enough to you, enough to put the question out of your mind while giving you a yellow thumbs up, I can feel you’re on some level aware that it does not really pass the test.
The existence of a standard skin color inevitably raises the thorny notion of racial neutrality that crops up in so many objections to affirmative action or, to take a more pertinent example, in the longstanding use of “flesh-colored” and “nude” as synonyms for pink skin tones. The yellow emoji almost feels like you’re claiming, “I don’t see race,” that dubious shibboleth of post-racial politics, in which the apparent desire to transcend racism often hides a more insidious desire to avoid getting mixed up with its burdens.Complicating all of this is the fact that the standard yellow is indelibly linked The Simpsons, who used that tone exclusively for white characters (those of other races, such as Apu and Dr. Hibbert, were shades of brown). Writer Zara Rahman has argued that the idea of a neutral emoji skin tone strikes her as evidence of an all-too-familiar bad faith: “To me, those yellow images have always meant one thing: white.”
At the risk of making too much of emoji (there are undeniably more pressing forms of racial injustice that deserve attention), I’d argue the dilemma involves a much greater tension around digital self-expression. The Web emerged in the heady spirit of multiculturalism and the color-blind politics of the 1990s, an ethos reminiscent of, say, the United Colors of Benetton ad featuring three identical human hearts labeled “white,” “black,” and ” yellow’. The promise of out-of-body experience was central to the cyberpunk ideal, which envisioned the internet as a new frontier where users would elude their real identities, take on virtual bodies (or no bodies at all), and be judged by their ideas—or their souls—rather than of according to their race. Unsurprisingly, this view was propagated by the mostly middle- and upper-class white males who were the first shapers of Internet culture. Scholar Lisa Nakamura has argued that the digital divide gave cyberspace a “whitewashed” perspective and that the dream of universalism in many early chat rooms became an opportunity for white people to engage in identity tourism, adopting avatars of other races that were widespread . with stereotypes – a problem that lives on in the prevalence of digital blackface on TikTok and other platforms.
Significantly, skin-tone matching was introduced in 2015, as social platforms abounded with reports of the police killings of the likes of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and as the tech press began to take stock of algorithmic biases in the justice system and recognized that technologies that once hailed as objective and color blind were only an aggravation of historical injustice. That year, Ta-Nehisi Coates noted (at the end of the Obama presidency) that the term post-racial “is almost never used seriously”, and Anna Holmes commented that it “has largely disappeared from conversation, except as sarcastic shorthand.”