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Is It Weird to Still Use White Emojis?

The idea of actively selecting a white emoji over the new default, cartoon yellow versions seems weird.
April 24, 2015, 7:20pm

​When Apple announced that its latest ​update would include an emoji keyboard featuring multiracial options, I, like many people, was pretty stoked. I always thought it was ridiculous that all the hand gesture and almost all of the people emojis were white, and was glad that the new default would be a cartoon yellow, to match the smiley faces, rather than any one race. It also included options for a few different skin colors, if you wanted an emoji that looked a bit more like you.


But now that I'm using the new keyboard, I've found myself wondering: is anybody using the white emojis? The idea of actively selecting a white thumbs up or hair-flip girl over the default yellow feels weird to me. Do I really have to point out that I am white when sending a quick message to a friend about where we're meeting for drinks? And how might a choice like that be interpreted by my friends?

I'm not the only one who has felt this way. Jess Zimmerman, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote around the time of the relea​se that she was hoping the white option would just vanish. "People of color have spent years with no representation except 'turban guy,'" Zimmerman wrote. "It's only fair that white people should figure out how to navigate a digital world where the only emoji princess has brown skin."

The obvious solution, of course, is to just stick to the neutral, unnaturally-yellow default emojis, which is what I've been doing. But I wanted to talk to some of my friends who happen to not be white about their thoughts on the new options and what they might think if I were to suddenly insist on reminding them of my whiteness with every clapping hands or angel emoji.

My buddy Adrian Lee is a digital editor at Maclean's magazine who wro​te about this topic a few weeks ago and is also Chinese-Canadian. He told me he never really felt a desire for more racialized emojis and feels the addition of the new options only serves to divide people further, rather than bring us together.


"They are making things worse," Adrian told me via text. "I feel absolutely no need to mention my race. This highlights differences, rather than adds to a greater understanding. It's not to say the intentions aren't good, but not all colors are represented and then we get into a tricky place where people continue to not feel represented because of it."

Adrian pointed out how most people avoid the existing, pseudo-racialized emojis like the man wearing a turban, for this exact reason. But that reminded me of a friend of mine who does use the turban-wearing emoji, somewhat frequently.

"I definitely think this is something people wanted," Shilpa Kumar told me. "Being an Indian girl, I found it a little frustrating that there was only the turban guy but nothing that represented Indian women. I felt left out."

Shilpa said she knows lots of people who have already changed the default skin color on their emojis to one that better represents their own skin tone, including herself. She said it is representative of a growing desire to having everything be ultra-personalized, pointing to the growing popularity of apps like Bitm​oji and My I​dol.

But she did see how the racialized options could be interpreted differently depending on the context and audience (Clorox bleach made this achingly clear with a m​isguided tweet about the new emojis that many interpreted as racist.) I asked her how she'd feel, for example, if I sent her a text about getting our nails done and included one "white hand nail polish" emoji and one "light brown hand nail polish" emoji.

"I personally would think that was hilarious, but I could see how some people might find that a bit racist or controversial," she said. "It really depends on your audience and how you're sending the emoji."

This was the sticking point for Adrian: because emojis are interpreted differently by different people, introducing race only makes it trickier to communicate.

"Emojis at their root aren't about representation. They're interpretive," he said.​

And that's really the crux of my issue: because emojis are so widely interpreted, adding racialized emojis to a message that's meant to be inclusive could end up isolating someone. I'm not petitioning to remove the multiracial emojis in the next update; it's made some people feel more represented on a device they interact with daily. But I am going to stick to the default yellow. All I'm really trying to say with that "okay hand" is "that's perfect," and I don't need to use a white hand to say it.