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The Politics of Emojis

An emoji for everyone!

There are few nonwhite emoji characters.(Screenshot)

photo of Elahe Izadi
March 27, 2014

There is an emoji of a lovestruck cat, but not one of a black person.

You may have noticed that the emoji keyboard, commonly used on Apple products, has a symbol for just about every occasion. You feel like grabbing some pho? BOOM. How about praying? You got it, buddy. For some reason, there is a grinning pile of poop. There are even two varieties of camels from which to choose. 

But while the emoji keyboard has a corner on camel diversity, it lacks in ethnic diversity. The most it has is a guy in a turban and this apparently Asian man.

 

That's going to change, Apple says. "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," an Apple spokesperson told MTV this week.

Emojis first became popular in Japan (which may help explain the plenitude of certain symbols and the dearth of others). A basic list has been developed and maintained by the Silicon Valley-based nonprofit Unicode Consortium since 2010.

To be fair, the emojis of facial expressions depict yellow-skinned individuals who look more like they are related to Bart Simpson than a real human being. But the characters engaging in synchronized dance routines, getting married, and painting nails are all white.

Internet petitions have been making the rounds, calling specifically for four faces "with melanin." (Others are demanding a hot-dog emoji, so it appears that emoji activism can take many forms.)

It's unclear when Apple will actually make this changes, and it's actually kind of a difficult and long process to add a single character via the Unicode Consortium. But it wouldn't be unprecedented; Apple included new same-sex couples to the emoji character set with a 2012 operating-system update.

The keyboard may seem frivolous, but the symbols have become a universal language, which users across the globe use to communicate with each other. And they're even in the Library of Congress (specifically, Emoji Dick—an emoji version of Moby Dick). So given that higher percentages of adult Hispanics and African-Americans own smartphones than whites, it make sense to update the keyboard with faces and people who reflect some of their most common users.

Now, if only Apple can get Siri to be able to recognize half of the names in my contact list (it took me 15 minutes to get her to call my brother—I stuck with it as a matter of principle), then we'll really be getting somewhere.

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