Eli Schiff:

It was at this point that the troubling nature of the situation became more clear. 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.

The problem with using inhuman colors is that unexpected and unwanted correlations might be drawn[1] that are almost as bad as the racial connotations invoked by more natural colors.

From a "Skeptic Friends Network" forum post on Avatar

From a "Skeptic Friends Network" forum post on Avatar

Yellow has the benefit of following prior art, which is probably why it remained the default color up to now. Among the earliest implementations of specific graphics rather than repurposed ASCII glyphs, AIM face smilies, also called emoticons[2] were bright yellow.

from “AIM Emoticon List” at Jamfoo

from “AIM Emoticon List” at Jamfoo

DoCoMo’s original emoji were bitmapped glyphs, later featuring an expanded set, and didn’t extend to inline images until Deco-mail emoji (デコメ絵文字) specified i-mode compatible image formats. The bitmapped “faces” variously used different shades of blue, purple, red, and green pixels on early mobile color screens to help convey different moods. Negative emotions were generally blue, for example (see: “Disappointed face” or “Dizzy” in the basic set; “Crying”, “Enduring face”, “Tear” in the expanded set) but some had an orange “skin” color (“Ear”, the “Hand” glyphs, and “Foot” in the basic set; “Yumm!”, “He he he”, “Thumbs up” in the expanded set). Deco-mail emoji mostly followed suit.

The people who did the most to promote graphical communication on mobile platforms, the Japanese themselves (aka: “yellow” people) tend not to think of race very much. There are two default settings in Japanese race relations:

  1. Japanese.

  2. Everybody else.

While some individual Japanese do take ethnicity into account, most Japanese treat culture and ethnicity as a package deal, especially in relation to Japan. It’s mostly in the hyper-self-aware West that anyone pays attention to any fine gradations in color.

(See: actual Japanese reactions to Hollywood casting. Many Japanese featured in that video didn’t even consider race to be an issue in casting until it was directly addressed, and the term “whitewashing” even had to be explained.)

While I think it’s generally a good idea to think about making things more inclusive and less discriminatory — I’ve written before about how weird it has been for me to live in a place that is almost entirely mono-ethnic[3] — making the blanket statement that it’s racist to use emoji at all is, frankly, bullshit. It’s like saying that if you are using a language that has grammatical gender you’re being unavoidably sexist.[4]

What happens in reality is that the way people use language has very little to do with its structure. You could take a complete nonsense word or phrase with no antecedent and make it racist or sexist, or create whatever meaning or nuance you desired, depending on context, usage, or the social group using it. We shape language much more than it shapes us; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is very weakly supported by empiricism. Some of the most sexist and racist cultures on the planet use languages that do not have linguistic gender.[5]

While I obviously disagree with most of what Schiff said, I actually do think that “skin” color in emoji should probably be addressed. I have two proposed solutions:

  1. Make it a non-human color (other than yellow, since that is considered “tainted” now) by default.

  2. Randomly assign a realistic tint.

And then don’t give the user any control whatsoever over it.

I like option 2 because skin color shouldn’t even be an issue any more. “White” people shouldn’t be obsesses about being seen as insensitive, exclusionary, or oooh, being mistaken for the “R” word because they don’t change the default inhuman bright yellow to an anemic rather than jaundiced tint. More understandable, but nearly as petty are the Melanin-Enhanced North-American Residents of Various Ethnic Extractions (MENARoVEE) who might agonize over just the right shade to add to their representative visage.[6]

One of the ways to make the world color-blind is to destroy the distinctions, not ignore them, nor reinforce them.

I’ve lived most of my adult life in a place where everyone looks different from me. I get daily questions about my language, my customs, my clothing, my food, my hair, my skin, my facial features, my size … you get the idea. Racism based on skin color is completely irrelevant when you have actual cultural differences to deal with.

People who are ultra-sensitive about racial and social issues would greatly benefit from living overseas, where agonizing about the color of emoji would be put into perspective as an amazingly petty concern compared to the daily experience of being perpetually different from everyone around them, and being completely powerless to affect changes in society about how people who are “othered” like them are treated.

  1. Unsurprisingly, South Park parodied the hell out of the blue-skinned Na’vi = big-assed Smurf association in their Dances with Smurfs episode.  ↩

  2. Amazingly, the best source of original artwork and the overall history of emoticons I can find is at Know Your Meme, of all sites. Odd source, but it does square with what I remember from actually having used these things from back before the internet was A Thing, back when I was dialing into message boards on a hand-me-down 2400 baud modem … Jesus Christ, I’m old. ↩

  3. Yes, you read that right, that is not a misplaced decimal point. Japan has an estimated native non-ethnic Japanese population of 0.2%, and a (very well) documented foreign resident population of just over 1.2 percent, of which more than half are of East Asian descent, or as some long-term residents — including Asians themselves — call them, “stealth gaijin”.  ↩

  4. Which actually has been asserted unironically.  ↩

  5. Note that there is also a difference between grammatical gender and a sociolect, in which men and women might use language in different ways and may diverge significantly, to the point of becoming a sub-dialect. The linguistic differences reflect the culture, and are almost certainly not the driver of the linguistic separation.  ↩

  6. I have some Native American mixed into my Anglo-American mutt genetic history. The only time it shows is in an odd tint to my skin when I’m actually out in the sun enough to tan significantly. When I was a country kid and ran around nearly naked from when it got warm enough in the spring until early fall when it started to get cold, I used to mix raw sienna and burnt umber with “flesh” crayons to approximate the color.  ↩