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.
Now, 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.
A 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 in 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.