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The topic of racial signifiers in UI design has been heavily discussed ever since the introduction of multiple shades of emoji skin tones in 2015 by the Unicode Consortium.
Prior to the release, a large subset of the emoji were rendered as phenotypically white, and that was the only available option. In the new ostensibly inclusive set, emoji come in six flavors: a default yellow, and 5 shades of skin tones.
Since the release, we've seen widely acclaimed articles like one by Slack designer Diogenes Brito, in which he recounted using a brown illustrated hand on a Slack promotional graphic, something he initially had some trepidation about.
In a followup article, Brito discussed the impact of the recently more diverse emoji. According to Brito, many users of diverse backgrounds were ecstatic:
They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying white people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.
Among others, Brito's article inspired KPCB Design in Tech advocate John Maeda to write his own piece discussing the meaning of Asian representation in relation to emoji, with a similar emphasis on the power of defaults.
Yesterday I happened upon a controversial article in the Atlantic by Andrew McGill, entitled Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji. McGill started with the premise that the phenotypically white emoji aren't being used in proportion to what one might expect given the American demography. His secondary headline proposed a theory: "Does shame explain the disparity?"
Those who are aware of Betteridge's law of headlines may be tempted to assume an answer here. As the law states, "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."
But the problem is a bit more complicated than that. As McGill notes,
This effect may also signal a squeamishness on the part of white people. The folks I talked to before writing this story said it felt awkward to use an affirmatively white emoji; at a time when skin-tone modifiers are used to assert racial identity, proclaiming whiteness felt uncomfortably close to displaying “white pride,” with all the baggage of intolerance that carried.
McGill argues rightly that in opting for the white emoji, a white person is engaging in a sort of affirmative white supremacy. But diving deeper, we must also consider the troubling nature of the yellow emoji.
When white people opt out of [white] racemoji in favor of the “default” yellow, those symbols become even more closely associated with whiteness—and the notion that white is the only raceless color.
Indeed, McGill notes that there is a precedent for yellow being culturally associated with whiteness as can be seen in the popular TV show, The Simpsons.
It follows that in using a yellow emoji, a white person is presuming whiteness as a default, and therefore reinforcing racist prejudice by preferring whiteness to be the default signifier.
It is therefore quite strange that yellow (white) emoji were set as the default, given that not assuming all users to be white was the entire premise behind making the new diverse set of emoji. In this way, the Unicode Consortium's efforts to achieve a more inclusive solution only served to doubly reinforce a racism of defaults.
Some have proposed the solution of simply not including a default. Perhaps the operating system makers could force users to explicitly define their race. But we should consider the situation of those who are mixed-race, for whom phenotypic identification is often problematic.
Moreover, as McGill is clear to note, when whites use the brown shades of emoji, it can be interpreted as an intolerant form of racial appropriation.
It was at this point that the troubling nature of the situation became more clear. It is not simply that it is problematic for whites to use the white emoji, but so too is it racist for them to use the brown shades and the yellow default. In sum, it is racist for whites to use any emoji.
There are two choices going forward: either white users should refrain from using emoji, or an alternative default must be drawn. Perhaps green, blue or purple would be an ideal choice as they don't have racial connotations.
This is an example of the meaningful political and cultural dilemmas that designers would not have had to consider 40 years ago. Back then, we had more homogenous societies, so inclusive representation was a less pressing concern. Now, designers must be more considerate and take seriously the power of defaults.
It appears that just after the publishing of this post, Google proposed a new suite of emoji to promote women's diversity. The designers noticed a growing movement arguing that female emojis are sexist and harmful to girls. The intersectional question remains, will it be permissible for white women to use the new yellow emoji?
- As noted, there's precedent for yellow being white skin in the Simpsons, where white characters are yellow and other characters are represented with the color of their real world counterparts. What's interesting is that in the show, Asian people are represented as white.
- The same goes for Lego.
- It turns out blue may not be the best neutral solution, as blue stood for black characters like Skeeter in the TV show Doug.
- In Unicode, "white" doesn't mean white skin.