The Politics of Emojis

An emoji for everyone!

There are few non-white emoji characters.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
March 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

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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