When Lego designed its stocky, squared-off human figures in the 1970s, it chose for the skin colour a bright, primary yellow. The yellow was recognisably human, yet artificial enough not to be identified with any particular race. You can see the same principle at work in the first 58 emoji on the Apple emoji keyboard: eight rows of yellow circles, raceless and genderless, each with a different expression.
After that, there's a boy in a Chinese cap and a man in a turban. From then on, every human emoji is white. White couples hold hands, kiss, and nestle a white child between them; white girls in pink tops cut their hair and paint their nails. White hands clap and wave.
Not for much longer. Earlier this month the Unicode Consortium, the company that enables emoji to appear across different devices, released a draft report that includes a proposal for diversifying their emoji provision. While most emoji fans have been celebrating the news, others have reservations. Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, recognises that current provisions are inadequate but fears that diversification will lead to a new set of problems. "When emoji become personally representative, they become politicised," he told me.
The Unicode report outlines plans to make five different skin tones available in mid-2015, with the release of Unicode Version 8.0. If the plans go ahead, users will be able to set one of the five colours as standard across the 145 emoji proposed for modification, or to vary the skin tone with each icon. Additionally, the draft suggests more of the emoji will become gender-neutral, so that, for example, the couple kissing with a heart between them isn't identifiably male-female. (At the moment, the only kissing couple available is male-female, as is the only couple pictured with a child.)
Christine Johnson is the founder and CEO of DiversiTech, a social enterprise which promotes communities underrepresented in technology. She sees the demands for emoji diversification as part of a broader trend. In an email, she told me that customers are becoming increasingly vocal about their hunger for images that represent them—especially those who feel marginalised by the homogeneity of mainstream media. Welcoming the changes, she nevertheless emphasised that diversity can't be accomplished "without thoughtful evaluation and action."
Hogan thinks the proposed updates will profoundly alter our understanding of emoji. When we spoke over the phone, he suggested that diversification will shift the focus of emoji from expression to representation. At the moment, the icons usually act as emotional punctuation, adding generic expression to texts and tweets rather than representing the sender or receiver. When I use the white woman with her hands above her head, I intend to express excitement and delight as abstract emotions, not to represent myself experiencing those emotions.
WHEN EMOJI BECOME PERSONALLY REPRESENTATIVE, THEY BECOME POLITICISED
Hogan believes that this will shift as users have to make decisions about what races they represent, when and how. He also expressed concerns about more negative consequences of emoji diversification.
In a recent article in New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh suggested that emoji are popular primarily because they're nice, providing an antidote to the aggression of many online environments. Emoji are "very useful for conveying excitement, happiness, bemusement, beffudlement, and even love," but pretty much incapable of conveying "anger, derision or hate." Even the bad-tempered emoji (Pouting Cat Face, Unamused Face, Person Frowning) don't read as genuine expressions of bad temper.
Hogan worries that diversification will add an unpleasant dimension to emoji culture, with some people using the icons to perpetuate racist stereotypes and prejudice on Twitter and other platforms. Diversification will lead to politicisation.
But emoji have always been politicised. They are political the moment you move from the raceless yellow faces to the white men, women and body parts. The only reason this isn't instantly recognised as political is that our dominant culture so frequently represents "white" as "neutral." I have the luxury of ignoring the representational aspect of the white woman with her hands above her head because I am a white woman; I don't experience the dissonance using her that someone of another race or gender might.
Unicode Version 8.0 will turn the emoji keyboard from a set that's inherently racist into a set that some people will choose to use in a racist way. The new emoji still won't come close to reflecting the variety of human ethnicity and skin tone, but they will be a huge improvement on the current set. To argue otherwise is like saying it would be better if everyone in the world were white, because then there would be no racism.
Even so, some of Unicode's solutions to the current emoji situation are clunky. Hogan suggested that it would be better to stick with one emoji skin colour, but to change it from white to something more neutral, like the Lego yellow. Emojitracker, a website which shows emoji use on Twitter in real time, indicates that the yellow faces are far more popular than the racially-specified humans anyway; it may be that users prefer their emoji without race or gender.
Another possibility would be to provide a wider colour palette, enabling users to choose from dozens of realistic skin tones instead of just five, as well as non-realistic colours like purple and orange.
This last option would, Hogan believes, encourage a playfulness and sense of possibility more consonant with the current spirit of emoji, rather than forcing users to sort humans into five racial categories. The Unicode report itself notes that its proposed changes won't allow interracial emoji couples or groups of friends.
Version 8.0 won't make emoji a perfect system. It will still reflect a culture which reinforces certain ideas about ethnicity and gender while dismissing others. But in six months or so, when I look at my phone and no longer see 54 white emoji looking back at me, I'll be celebrating with Clapping Hands and Smiling Faces with Smiling Eyes.