Does 👋🏻 mean something different than 👋🏾? What about ✊🏿 compared to ✊🏻?
In 2015, Apple released a new array of emoji skin tones. Instead of only white or Simpson yellow, emojis range 5 colors, from a pale white (👍🏻) to a dark brown (👍🏿). The addition of these emojis rectified an obvious omission. Now, people of color can text a “thumbs up” or “fist bump” that accurately represents the color of their skin.
I’m white—my skin is pale in the winter and burnt in the summer. But when these “racemojis” were first released, I watched my finger hover over the whitest emoji, pause, and switch to one shade darker. Somehow, 💪🏻 and 👏🏻—and certainly ✊🏻—felt too white.
Three years later, this reaction is still strikingly common. From Kendall Jenner to Ellen Pompeo, white people are opting for emojis several shades darker than their own skin tone. According to Atlantic writer Andrew McGill, only 19% of Twitter users chose emojis with the lightest skin tone, even though white Twitter users outnumber black users four-to-one.
McGill attributes this phenomenon to a white discomfort with race: “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 carries.”
Yet, the ability to swap white skin color out for a darker version to avoid “proclaiming whiteness” is a sign of significant privilege. While using a darker emoji may de-emphasize whiteness when it’s uncomfortable, white people still benefit from their skin color IRL. In contrast, Kumari Devarajan reminds us, “black people can’t choose when to invoke their blackness.” People of color face daily discrimination for the the color of their skin, from racial slurs to housing discrimination to police brutality—ask the families of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Stephon Clark, among many others.
This white co-optation of darker skin tones fits squarely in a long American history of white appropriation of black culture, music, and skin color. As Lauren Michele Jackson states, “Employing digital technology to co-opt a perceived cache or black cool involves playacting blackness in a minstrel-like tradition.”
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in America. Minstrelsy shows included imitation of black music, dance, and speaking patterns, often perpetuating negative stereotypes of black people. Blackface’s pervasive acclaim extended into twentieth century popular culture, with movies like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, radio shows like Amos ’n’ Andy, and TV shows like Beulah.
In recent years, cultural appropriation has continued. The fame of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, for example, raised questions about the use of historically-black dialect by white musicians. According to Amy Zimmerman, “[Azalea] gets to profit off of her white appeal while simultaneously selling a black sound. She is making a huge career for herself by mimicking the vocal patterns and phrases of a Southern black girl.”
Some white people attempt to avoid this conundrum by using the more “neutral” yellow emojis, such as 👌 or 💪. In reality, these emojis are far from neutral. Phenotypically, yellow emojis most closely match the characteristics of white people: straight blonde hair, for example (👩). Many have also likened these yellow emojis to TV show ‘The Simpsons’; notably, in ‘The Simpsons,’ characters of color are given brown skin tones, not yellow ones. Furthermore, Asian people have spoken out against the use of the default yellow emoji, arguing that it echoes a racist tradition of Asians being referred to as “yellow.”
Our digital spaces are just as impacted by race as our physical ones. So, what emojis should we use?
My answer is this: Be racially honest. Represent yourself as who you are.
As white people, acknowledging our racial privilege can be uncomfortable. But this understanding is the first step—the first step to resisting centuries of systemic racial violence, the first step to combatting white supremacy, and the first step to building thoughtful and intersectional communities. Let’s be honest about the color of our skin while we listen to needs of people of color, support local black business, call out everyday racism, and advocate for positive change.
It’s okay to start small, too. Text your friends, post on Facebook, and share articles on Twitter. Just use ✌🏻 instead of ✌🏽.
Miranda Rosenblum is a senior at the University of Richmond studying American Studies and Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Miranda loves listening to people’s life stories and reading/watching/supporting anything created by queer folks. Some of Miranda’s favorite things include: thrift store sweaters, social justice movements, and a good book.