You can now choose six different skin colours for most emoji on your phone. If you press and hold some emoji, most humanoid ones, you can select more skin colours. So you can make that thumbs up or surfer either pale beige or dark brown or leave them yellow.
These skin colours are based on the Fitzpatrick scale, which categorises skin colour based on how much melanin is present and how easily it burns, tans and develops cancer in UV light. The scale is usually used by dermatologists.
The most common emoji, ones like the regular smile or the crying-laughing and other faces, are still only available in yellow. And yellow is still the default for every other emoji type. You see yellow and you have to press and hold to select other skin types. Once a skin colour is selected for a particular emoji that skin colour becomes the default for that emoji, not globally, not for all of them.
Yellow skin is strange. Nobody really has yellow skin unless they’re sick. Yellow skin implies cartoons, via The Simpsons, and it was the original colour of the common smiley, which is probably how it found its way to emoji. For most white people yellow feels like a cartoon colour with no racial undertones. It’s not a real person, it’s cartoon person, a cartoon emoji with four fingers and yellow skin. But yellow actually just means white skin. Yellow is a pale colour and it’s used a stand-in for white skin.
In The Simpsons everyone has yellow skin unless they have brown skin. So Homer and Marge and all the other white people are yellow. But Apu is brown and Dr Hibbert is brown. So here yellow is just code for white.
There has long been demand for brown coloured emoji because people of colour see that yellow means white and that by using yellow emoji their skin colour, and by extension their blackness, their ethnicity and their culture, was being erased from digital conversation. One of the only ways they may express their cultural identity, via a visualisation and presence of their skin colour in emoji, was not possible. We live in a racist world where systematic opression silences people of colour, a racism which silences the diversity of human experience and homogenises what it means to be normal under the visual culture of whiteness. Most political, cultural and societal structures create a hierarchy where brown skin is placed below white skin, brown and black people placed below white people. White people are promoted as normal and desirable, and white skin is shown as a default, including in the design decision to make emoji yellow by default. Black and brown skin is erased.
It is a step in the right direction to offer more skin tones for emoji but the UI and the design approach is far from perfect. Most people send emoji as self-representation, meaning the emoji is supposed to show them.
Most people of colour I know send me brown emoji corresponding to their skin colour. I’m white, should I send white emoji back? Perhaps I should select the pale emoji colour corresponding to my skin tone and send that one. But the act seems strange, it feels weird. By sending a white skin emoji am I not also signalling something like pride or even, perhaps, a kind of supremacy. I received a white thumbs up recently and it read wrong, it was strange that a white person would be demonstrative about their skin colour. And what if it had been a white fist raised in the air. It felt weird that that white person made an active choice to click, hold and select to send me their whiteness.
I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of white pride and white supremacy. And it’s exactly that awareness and hate of bigotry which makes me feel strange about using or sending a white emoji. I am not proud to be white and I don’t want to promote white pride. I’m also afraid of being perceived as racist.
But, by sending a yellow emoji I’m still just sending a white emoji. As much as white people might feel that yellow is somehow neutral or a default it’s actually still just read as white skin. So either I send a yellow emoji which is code for white or I send a white emoji. By sending a yellow emoji I’m not doing much better, I’m using the privilege of the user interface to avoid facing whiteness, to avoid coming to terms with white privilege. Because the user interface, despite it’s introduction of brown skin tones, is still a white interface. By having to choose brown skin tones for each individual emoji yellow actually remains the default for every other one. Black and brown people have to waste time selecting the correct skin colour for each emoji they send. White people don’t have to do that, they can just click the default yellow and assert the normality, the defaultness, of their whiteness. This whiteness as default happens in other kind of design too, where “nude” ballet shoes are just beige and pink is described as “skin-coloured”.
I believe in this situation it makes the most sense for white people to send white skin emojis, as avatars of themselves. This may seem to contradict the previous point against white emoji but it’s the lesser of two evils. While in some contexts white skin emoji may be read as “white pride”, I believe those contexts are rare. Most white people feel uncomfortable opting to use a white skin emoji, choosing the default yellow instead. But the default is not a default at all, it’s simply white privilege dressed up in yellow. By using a white skin emoji white people are showing solidarity with people of colour. They are showing that they’re aware that the default design actually erases black and brown visual culture. White skin emoji are also consistent with the avatarisation of emoji, over time emoji look more and more like their users.
I propose two long-term design solutions. We can either move towards avatars or away from anthropomorphy.
The first design solution is to use avatars. You create individual emoji which reflect what you look like, more or less. Apple has taken this approach with its memoji. You design a digital avatar which looks like you and when you want to send an emoji you send this avatar, no more white as default, but personalisation as progress, allowing also for various eye shapes, piercings, hairstyles, head coverings, glasses, etc. I believe memoji is a step in the right direction. I predict avatarisation as the future of emoji.
The second solution is to move away from anthropomorphy. By making cartoons which do not resemble humans we can use them in a more neutral way. For example by making cartoon round faces which are blue or green, or by using a cartoon cat or an alien or an apple, you move away from the implication that the emoji is a representation of the user. These kinds of emoji are already available, the cat emoji is even yellow. It’s not exactly progressive.
For now, a good design solution would be to make the user select the emoji colour on first use, to remove yellow as a default, to stick to the skin tones for all and to make the skin tones populate globally across all emoji so that the user no longer has to select each skin tone individually. By removing the yellow as default you also remove the white pride implications when white people use white skin emoji, since there is no other choice but to choose your skin tone. This is a step towards avatarisation. By making the user select the skin colour and populating globally on first use you further remove whiteness as default via the colour yellow. You also save everyone a lot of time.
I would like to point out too that yellow skin is itself racially loaded. Yellow is a racist term used to describe east Asian people or people of east Asian descent. Yellow skin, when not read as white, is read as Asian, which is worse. It is offensive to draw Asian people as yellow. This is a mistake The Simpsons animators have made many times, Asian characters on the show are often drawn with yellow skin. The excuse seems to be that since yellow skin on The Simpsons means white skin it’s ok to depict Asian characters with yellow skin. I don’t agree. The Simpsons has a track record of depicting racist stereotypes so finding yet another example is not surprising.
Finally, you should probably avoid using a skin tone other than your own when it comes to referring to yourself via emoji, especially if you’re white. A white person using a brown skin emoji is the digital equivalent of blackface.
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