Why I stopped using the yellow- and the two palest-shade emojis, and why you should too.

Cover image courtesy of the Washington Post

Everywhere I look in the media, I see whxte* (or at the very least, whxte-passing — I don’t want to assume anybody’s race) faces where I ought to be seeing diversity. Whxtes are drastically overrepresented in Hollywood, making up the vast majority of good movie roles, while BIPOC and AAPI individuals are often reduced to token characters, racial stereotypes, or the butt of the joke. Cosmetic companies famously make dozens of pale shades of foundation, and think anybody who wears a shade darker than Arctic Snowstorm can deal with a one-shade-colours-all solution. And while lingerie companies like Victoria’s Secret are now finally starting to take steps in the right direction, for years they made millions off of whxte bodies upholding patriarchal beauty standards, marching down the runway in angel wings that were probably made by child labour in fast-fashion factories.

Anybody who’s paying attention to any of this sees that this lack of representation is clearly a huge issue, because it further leads us towards upholding whxteness as a norm, instead of an oppressive and artificial construct meant to keep non-whxtes down, so whxte surpremacy can be upheld. But at least with some of the institutions I have criticized here — Hollywood and the beauty industry, for instance — there is, at least, some degree of dialogue that is happening about how to address issues of representational injustice such as new diversity requirements in the Oscars, and BIPOC-owned beauty brands like Fenty Beauty now producing WOC-suitable makeup products. Not enough dialogue, don’t get me wrong, but at least there is some. But you know what nobody is talking about?

Emojis. Yeah, you heard me right, and I’m not joking. Emojis come in several different skin tones, and some of them get used a lot more than others.

First of all, the yellow emoji has just got to go. There are no humans on this planet that have skin that shade of yellow, and “yellow skin” has been used in the past to insult and denigrate members of the AAPI community. Furthermore, the yellow emoji is meant to be a racially-nonspecific emoji — that is to say, it represents a universal caricature of a human with no clearly discernible racial identity. We know now that ‘not seeing race’ is a part of the problem, not part of the solution: Everybody sees race, and you’re just lying if you say that you don’t. Your race is literally the first thing people see when they look at you, and your biases both conscious and subconscious result in you making all sorts of assumptions about a person before they can even open their mouth and speak to you. The concept of a universal, post-racial human is unrealistic and problematic, and the normalization of the yellow emoji shows that we are still clinging to the hope of establishing a world where this is how the average person is seen.

For a long time, yellow emojis were all we had to attempt to express ourselves more accurately and emotionally over text-based communication, and this presented us with all sorts of ethical issues. On one hand, emojis make communication much simpler for many people with learning disabilities, autism, and other similar conditions, and people who simply see the world in pictures more clearly than they do in words. They could choose images that captured what they felt more precisely than they could choose words. On the other hand, using the yellow emoji reinforced false notions of universal humanity and anti-AAPI hate. This left many marginalized people in a difficult position, and thankfully, eventually, Apple stepped forward and revolutionized their emoji system by adding five different skin tones on top of the default yellow.

But, as is the usual when capitalist entities like Apple step in, what they did was too little and too late. The universal human remained the ‘default’ emoji, which continues to reinforce a notion that the post-racial, universal human is the default way we should be thinking about humanity. This emoji should have been eliminated altogether. And they only offered us five other skin tones to choose from, when in reality we come in far more than five different shades of human. And of the five skin tones, two are the default skin colours of whxte people; the palest two, obviously. This leaves BIPOC and AAPI individuals to choose from only three shades, even though the vast, vast majority of humans fall into those categories. Of Earth’s 7.8 billion inhabitants, only 7.6% live in North America and 9.59% live in Europe; these are the only two “whxte” continents, and those continents are becoming less and less whxte all the time as whxtes, thankfully, have a rapidly falling birth rate. Whxte faces make up a tiny percent of the world’s population, yet we see them everywhere we turn — even when we want to send a smiley face to a friend.

In order to increase representation for non-whxte individuals, I will not be using the two palest shade emojis as well as the yellow one ever again. But our duties don’t end there. There are all sorts of other problematic emojis on our keyboards that need to be removed immediately:

  • the angel emoji: Christian connotations
  • the fake-moustache-and-glasses emoji: transphobic as the fake moustache is framed as something humorous, when transgender individuals might use them quite seriously to better express their gender identity
  • the hand-over-the-mouth emoji: makes light of violent domestic abuse, where non-cis men may have been forcedly silenced by their oppressors
  • the puking emoji: does not contain a trigger warning, so it may be upsetting for individuals with emetophobia
  • the alt-right hand symbol: maybe it still meant “okay” or “this is good” when Apple created their emoji keyboard, but we all know what it means nowadays
  • the prayer emoji: further Christian connotations
  • the three different police emojis: yep! Not just one, but THREE. Seriously Apple, do better.
  • the David Bowie Aladdin Sane makeup-inspired emoji: David Bowie literally raped a thirteen year old, and this emoji glamorizes this abusive (and overrated) predator
  • the ninja emoji: could be used to play into harmful stereotypes about AAPI individuals. Especially *shudder*, the yellow variant of the ninja emoji.
  • the wardrobe section lacks articles of clothing which might be seen in a drag queen’s closet
  • the fire and peach emojis: constantly used to objectify femme-aligned individuals
  • the food section features some, but not enough, examples of culturally significant foods
  • only four global currencies of hundreds have their own emojis
  • the flag emojis might promote nationalism

This is but a handful of hundreds of instances of injustices found on your emoji keyboard, because an emoji which appears benign at first might become deeply problematic if a specific skin shade is chosen for it. I just wanted to show you some ways in which you might be inadvertently serving as an oppressor just through your emoji choices alone, and encourage you to think more carefully about the harm you might be causing when you employ them.

I suppose I have to give some credit where it is due: the gun emoji (which never should have existed in the first place) was removed, but instead of just abolishing it, they felt a need to replace it with a water gun for whatever reason, and toxic males simply used the water gun emoji the same way they used to use the gun emoji. A slightly sillier aesthetic with the exact same connotation.

So I would like to invite all of you to take a stand against the yellow emoji, because it has no value at all, and to stop using the palest ones as well (or at least, to use them less often, so that the other shades of emojis can receive more representation). I would invite you all to think twice before you send an emoji, and make sure you aren’t sending connotations that might have gone over your head, but which could cause harm to some people. And I would encourage you to write to Apple, demanding they remove blatantly harmful emojis like the ones listed above altogether, so that the capacity for doing wrong by using them isn’t even an option. There is power in numbers, and if we all agree to be more responsible users of emojis, we could start seeing far fewer whxte faces and far more diversity on our cell phone screens.

-a. j. morgan-kelly//decolonize. liberate. resist.

*I use whxte as opposed to “white” because the word can be triggering to people who face oppression and violence by whites — and who are also just sick and tired about having to hear about white people all the time.

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a. j. morgan-kelly

a. j. morgan-kelly

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whxte settler on unseded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Territory//grsj major + soci minor//decolonize + resist//BLM//ze/zir and fae/faeself//queer enby