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The Solution to the Emoji Diversity Problem: Make Them All Yellow

We've got five different skin tones to choose from with the new emoji keyboard – but when you start playing the representation game, you're always going to leave someone out.

by Arielle Pardes
09 April 2015, 4:00am

Apple's iOS 8.3 update became available today, and with it came the long-awaited, racially diverse emoji keyboard. The formerly whitewashed humanlike characters can be made to have one of five different skin tones.

This improvement has been a long time coming—emojis have been accused of racism more times than Star Wars: Episode 1. An online petition, which received a few thousand signatures, made the point that "of the more than 800 Emoji, the only two resembling people of color are a guy that looks vaguely Asian and another in a turban." The closest thing to a black person was the emoji moon.

Now, not only can you select from five skin tones when you send your friends and family any of the basic emojis (high-five, thumbs up, or flexing bicep, for example), Apple has also updated the gender options in some emoji characters, adding a pair of men kissing, a pair of women kissing, and 15 different representations of families, including ones with two moms and two dads.

And yet, if Apple's update was meant to improve the representation of the people who use them, then the new characters are hardly a success. When you start playing the representation game, you're always bound to leave someone out.

When I downloaded the update earlier today, I texted a few of the new characters to one of my best friends. "Look! New emojis!" I wrote to her, sending my signature girl-with-hand-on-the-side Emoji in all five colors. "But still no redheads," she wrote back (she's a ginger). Of the 15 family combinations, none had single parents. There's no emoji in a wheelchair, no trans emoji, no women emoji wearing hard hats or police badges. Also, they added an Apple Watch character, but there's still no hot dog. What's up with that?

The problem with emoji in the past wasn't that you couldn't select one that looked exactly like you—it was the fact that all of the human emojis were white. When white becomes the de facto neutral, that's obviously problematic, as the kids say. But expanding the color palates doesn't un-problemify everything. Plus, as the creators of Oju (an Afro-centric Emoji alternative) pointed out when they spoke with Motherboard last month, "diversity is not about skin color—it's about embracing the multiple cultures out there that have no digital representation." You can't just slap a darker color on one of the preexisting characters and call that "diversity."

One option would be for Apple to give users the option to create custom characters—a service that's already offered by Slack, the group chat medium used by VICE and many other companies. Or maybe Apple should stop trying to represent racial diversity altogether on the emoji keyboard, and instead make all of the little anthropomorphized characters yellow.

Why yellow? The original emoticons—those primitive, simplistic smiley faces that we used to drop into our AOL Instant Messenger chats—weren't meant to represent people. They represented emotions. The first of those smilies was (arguably) designed in 1963, when commercial artist Harvey Ball designed the character to boost morale at his insurance firm. It was a perfect circle with black dots for eyes and a curve of a smile on a bright yellow background. It wasn't assigned gender or race, and it wasn't meant to represent anyone in particular. It was just supposed to make people happy.

Later, as emoticons became more advanced and the expressions became more nuanced, yellow was still the de facto color for the faces—in part, because yellow was neutral. Legos were specifically designed with yellow skin for the purpose of eliminating racial bias; according to the company's customer service page: "We chose yellow to avoid assigning a specific ethnicity in sets that don't include any specific characters. With this neutral color, fans can assign their own individual roles to Lego minifigures."

The new emoji update includes a neutral yellow character for all of its humanoids. Rather than trying to box people into a narrow variety of colors, genders, or situations, I'll probably use that from now on—or at least until Emoji comes out with their next update. Which I hope includes a hot dog.

Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.