The Subtle Art of Choosing Emoji Skin Tones for One’s Self in a Hypersensitive World

We live in an emoji world, and if loving those digital icons and using them religiously is wrong, then we don’t want to be right. Most of us agree that one emoji is worth a hundred words. We use emojis to express happiness, anger and even eye rolls. And a lot of us are using emojis; in 2017 Adweek reported that users send 5 billion emojis on Messenger every day. And while speaking emoji is an art form (one that Millennials have mastered and your mom fails to understand), and choosing an emoji can be tough, choosing the right skin tone of your emoji seems to be an even more complicated task.

A Brief History of Emoji Colors

Once upon a time emojis were about as simple as digital smiley faces and images could be. They came in one color: white. Yes, there is a huge issue with that situation as well. The world is not white. The emojis did not reflect the diverse world we live in, and whether you are black, white, Hispanic or Asian, you had to give a white thumbs up. Which is why the emoji gods heard our call and created a new default color: yellow. Suddenly every emoji we sent looked like we belonged in the Simpsons, but it was arguably an improvement from the all-white emoji options of the past. The yellow emoji was meant to offer a nonhuman, generic appearance that was able to communicate an emotion or message regardless of one’s skin tone.  

Emoji 2015 Belatina
Photo Credit NPR/AP 2015

But then back in 2015, to complicate matters even more, Apple worked with the Unicode Consortium — a nonprofit group based in Silicon Valley that is responsible for designing emojis — to introduce five new emoji skin tones in an effort to make emoji use more racially diverse. They are: light, medium-light (aka tan), medium, medium-dark and dark skin tone. The skin tones are based on the Fitzpatrick scale, a recognized standard for dermatology based on how skin tones react to ultraviolet light, according to Unicode’s website.

Emojis Here and Now

And that brings us to where we are today: with options, minimal as they may be, to choose a tone-modified emoji that seems to fit our race and our appearance. But how do you choose the right skin tone to represent you?

Again, it’s an art form. And it’s definitely not a simple matter.

When Apple released these racially diverse emoji skin tones, it was in an effort to correct their mistake of excluding people of color from the emoji world. But their efforts have further complicated what was a fairly simple form of communication, and now users are forced to think about inclusion and racial identity when they text or tweet, a place where they never had to consider race before.

And even more concerning is that the diverse emoji aren’t actually that diverse at all; every emoji is exactly the same with the same features, only darker or lighter skin tones. So there isn’t really anything black about an emoji with dark brown skin, it’s just a white emoji with a mask.

The good news is that, even in this hypersensitive world, people are utilizing these emoji skin tones, and more importantly are using them in a positive way to self-identify and express themselves. In an interview with Alexander Robertson, a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, who published a study “Self-representation on Twitter using emoji skin color modifiers,” Robertson explains that “one, people do use these modifiers, and two, they’re using them in actually a very positive way. They’re using it to represent themselves, and even when they’re not representing themselves with them, they’re using very positive language.”