by Yomi Adegoke

It’s very rare I find myself on the same proverbial page as Miley Cyrus. But in 2012 when she remarked on the peculiar omission of black faces from the emoji keyboard, I very much wanted to administer to her that fist bump on the behalf of the black community she has spent this recent phase of her career desperately trying to earn.

As most are well aware, emojis are now a legitimate lexicon for Generation Y. ‘LOL’ is simply a few letters too long in an age where our phones text for us – who needs entire words when our titillation can be perfectly conveyed with a tiny laughing icon and our shock portrayed through the choice of 10 different startled faces? And for those days when you feel like a literal smiling piece of shit…well, there’s an emoji for that too. From Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ video to PETA adverts, emojis are used by just about everyone, depicting just about everything – except black people.

screen-shot-2014-03-27-at-10-15-57-amNow, no one is knocking emojis knack for variety. There’s a crème caramel icon for Pete’s sake. But with 63 different animals and more stationery than you can shake a triangular ruler at (which you could, because of course they have one), you can’t help but wonder why this dedication to diversity wasn’t as high on the agenda regarding race. This March, in response to a concerned email courtsey of MTV, Apple’s vice-president of worldwide corporate communications offered some insight:

“Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms.” She explained.

“There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.”

No explanation was offered however as to why this glaring oversight wasn’t addressed last year with the iOS 6 update (which did bother to debut gay couples in a bid to make the app appear more inclusive). Despite the upcoming introduction of over 250 new emojis this July, people of colour are to be omitted yet again. But we shouldn’t fret- emoji essentials such as ‘Man in business suit levitating’ ‘chipmunk’ and ‘black droplet’ have made the cut. We can at least find solace in the fact that we can finally illustrate airborne yuppies, tree dwelling rodents and allude to past prison murders with ease.

emojirepsA continued dismissal of the much needed ’emoji ethnicity update’ moves their action (or rather, inaction) from an incidental omission to an intentional one; I like floppy disks as much as the next gal, but surely one of the three different kinds included could have been swapped for a person of colour? And let us not forget that the present depictions of minorities courtesy of the Unicode Consortium are best described by the most infamous of emojis; the anthropomorphic turd. A turbaned man, a moustached Mexican and a flamenco dancer mid Olé; we can only hope when Apple do eventually pull their finger out they leave the medallions, fried chicken and sideways baseball cap at the door.

A precept of White culture is the belief that white is normative. The characteristics of Whiteness, including culture, language, and appearance, are assumed to define humanity. “Others” that may deviate from that normative definition are therefore regarded to be less than human.” (Frankenberg, 1993; Garner, 2006)

A lack of black emojis only became problematic with the creation of white emojis. Gone are the days of the corn coloured emoticon; noseless, raceless and by default, harmless. The currently Caucasian keyboard offends not because of the many things it’s managed to include (if we put aside the rehashing of racial tropes and unrelenting Euro-centrism) but the one thing it hasn’t. There really is no excuse; their current catalogue includes a love-struck cat, 4 different depictions of a padlock and an aubergine. The replacement of undeniably superfluous moon phases (Seriously. They have 13) with people of colour is long overdue.

In a society where the patron saints of pop culture are The Obamas, The Carters, Lupita and Rihanna, it is surprising that black people still remain such an afterthought, especially in such a widely used app. But at least the creators finally caved in6KKXZsdo_normal and given us a simple and succinct way for us to summarise our feelings towards their lame ‘attempts’ at inclusivity; the much awaited (white) middle finger.

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Yomi Adegoke is a recent law graduate and writer of Nigerian descent. She is founder and editor of Birthday Magazine, a publication aimed at providing representation for black teenage girls and writes about race, popular culture and intersectional feminism. You can find and follow her on Twitter: @sittingwitty.

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3 thoughts on “Emojis as White Supremacy? :-/

  1. Funny, I complained to whatsapp on three occasions on this exactly! Not a single reply was forthcoming in case you are suprised…

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  2. …the irony, of course, being that emoji are not of white people, but of JAPANESE people (and before anyone starts in about ‘blonde person!’, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of hair dye, which a lot of young Japanese men and women use to make their hair blonde for fashion). Japanese people created emoji – the word is Japanese (絵[e]文字[moji] – literally ‘picture letters’)! – and the only reason Apple put emoji on their phones was because they needed them to get into the Japanese market, because emoji were already an integral part of Japanese texting and e-mailing that folks were complaining about them NOT being there. (The Japanese origin is why there are things like the emoji of bamboo stalks, a Japanese new year’s decoration).

    But pointing that out opens a whole other can of worms about how we ‘code’ drawings of races, and how the markers we use in the west for other – ie, Asian – are not markers that people in Asia use for themselves. Which is why these emojis are lambasted as being ‘white’ and people in the west wonder why anime is full of ‘white’ people.

    Now, it is long past time to add black emoji faces, and the racist imagery in many of the emojis frankly owes more to Japan than Apple (and the lack thereof does as well; there’s a reason why white models are ubiqitous in Japan but I can count on one hand the number of ads I’ve seen with black people) – but assuming whiteness and why it’s assumed so is a WHOLE other kettle of fish.

    And for the record, before anyone asks, I am not white – I’m black, but have lived in Japan for over 13 years, and was using emoji – many of the same emojis being called white – long before they ever made it off Japanese feature phones and onto iPhones. Honestly, blaming all this on Apple completely negates where emoji came from and just who emoji originally were of. This is actually way more complex an issue than the way it’s being handled here.

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  3. Yessssss!!! Loved this article! White as normative is absolutely everywhere in the media! We see it all the time in films where they exclude black characters and the directors always say “because it’s not about race.” But it is–its purposely exclusionary when you assume that white represents everyone. I’d never considered Emojis as an expression of white supremacy. Great article. Though I would never fist-bump Miley Cyrus. She makes so much money off of appropriation and black stereotypes- and she sees no wrong in doing so- It’s sickening. But I guess every once in a while she has a few smart things to say.

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