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Hackernoon logoTracking the Evolution of Emoji Skin Tones by@kunal

Tracking the Evolution of Emoji Skin Tones

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@kunalKunal Mishra

Tech Writer. Creating Graphics. theciva.wordpress.com/subscribe

Five years ago, everyone used the same yellow-coloured emojis (which looked like the Simpsons or the LEGO, or just someone suffering from jaundice).

The yellow colour was chosen to make emojis generic and non-realistic. So that it doesn’t represent any specific skin colour.

But turned out that blacks and people of colour felt misrepresented by the yellow emoji. This defies the sole purpose of it being yellow, in the first place.

And even Apple acknowledged it openly in 2014 when it went viral gaining public support.

The next year, Unicode Consortium, a non-profit that governs text and emoji standards worldwide, proposed an update to respect emoji diversity.

It released some technical papers concerning the same, with a dedicated section on Diversity, that reads:

“People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone”

And thus the 5 emoji skin colour modifiers came into being.

But there were controversies around who actually choose these skin tones. Were they biased for including some tones and not some others?

And there’s still a big problem ahead.

Who choose what skin colours to include which to not?

Obviously, the Unicode Consortium. But a more serious question is: Is it based on race or ethnicity?

Thankfully, no. These colour are based on dermatology, the science of skin. To be specific, they’re based on the Fitzpatrick Scale.

Now, what the heck is Fitzpatrick Scale?

It is a dermatology scale that grades skin colour depending on how different skin types react to UV light.

It’s kind of a racist fairness scale. Except it’s backed up with science, not race or ethnicity.

Unicode Consortium has merged Type 1 and 2 for… nobody knows maybe for convenience. (Or they were lazy)

Anyways, we’re left with 5 skin types now: 

Credits: Emojipedia

Okay, the blacks got a way to be represented, the white already had one. Happy ending, right? No

The problem with the solution

This story should’ve ended here because there’s been a problem (blacks under-represented) and a solution (colour diversity in emojis).

But it didn’t. Because the solution is now another problem.

See Whites don’t use white skin colour emojis because they feel uncomfortable displaying their “white pride”. So instead, they choose to use the default one. Because that’s enough to represent them anyway.

On the other hand, Aditya Mukherjee who advocates for eliminating emoji colour modifiers altogether, says:

“Every time I use an emoji, I have to make a choice: Do I use a colored racemoji, and draw attention to my ethnicity (even when it’s not pertinent), or do I use a default emoji, which may misrepresent me altogether?”

While whites can still use the default yellow emoji that represents them without focusing on their colour, blacks have to either focus on their colour or misrepresent themselves.

This is unacceptable because the internet is meant to be equal for all.

The neutral emoji isn’t neutral. But why?

The problem is that what should be neutral is actually biased towards the whites. The neutral emoji is yellow. Bright yellow. Which resembles more to whites than blacks.

It’s not because of the whites. (Nor is it because of the Simpsons or the LEGO.)

Actually, we don’t yet have solid reason why emojis are yellow.

But here are some possible reasons:

  • Face details in emojis look better in a yellow background. This is pretty logical. I mean here’s emojis would look if on a red, blue or green backdrop:
  • Yellow is commonly associated with emotions like amusement, gentleness, humor, and spontaneity, but also with duplicity, envy, jealousy, avarice, and, in the U.S., cowardice.
  • Simple smiley faces are typically yellow in the physical world. So it’s natural to use them in the digital web.
  • The yellow doesn’t although bright doesn’t directly match to any skin tone. And Unicode wanted to make it unrealistic so it doesn’t match with any actual skin colour.

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