Paige Tutt, Washington Post, April 10, 2015
Apple on Thursday introduced its new racially diverse emoji, allowing users to cycle through various shades of white and brown to customize their emoji’s skin colors. Some rejoiced, with choruses of “We made it” flanked by newly black praise-hand emoji filling Instagram and Twitter. Some even professed to cry tears of joy over this sign of racial inclusion. But already, Apple’s well-intentioned gesture to human diversity has taken a turn for the worse. The emoji are being used to make racist comments on social media and insert questions of race in texts and tweets where it may never have arisen before. Instead of correcting its mistake–excluding people of color from emoji–Apple has, in some ways, made the situation worse.
In trying to advocate for racial inclusivity in its iOS 8.3 update, Apple has allowed for further racial segregation with these new emoji. Because I’m black, should I now feel compelled to use the “appropriate” brown-skinned nail-painting emoji? Why would I use the white one? Now in simple text messages and tweets, I have to identify myself racially. I’ll now question other people’s emoji use when they’re speaking to me: Why is he sending me the black angel emoji specifically? Why is she sending me the black-girl emoji instead of the white one? What Apple has done is introduce race into everyday conversations where it doesn’t necessarily need to be. Clorox already has felt the weight of that reality, when in response to the new emoji, the brand tweeted “where’s the bleach?” The barrage of criticism that followed the face-palm moment pressured the company to tweet an apology, noting that it never meant the comment as a reference to race.
Apple’s intent was good. But the execution was completely flawed. Apple took the easy way out. Instead of creating actual emojis of color, Apple simply allows its users to make white emoji a different color. With this update, the company skirts around having to attribute certain physical characteristics to certain races of people. For example, there’s nothing specifically “black” about an emoji with browner skin. Deepening the skin color of a previously white emoji doesn’t make the emoji not white. It’s just a bastardized emoji blackface. The blond-haired emoji man and the blue-eyed emoji princess are clearly white, but you can slip them into a darker-colored skin. These new figures aren’t emoji of color; they’re just white emoji wearing masks.
Understandably, Apple didn’t want to create caricatures, giving those emoji an afro or thicker lips. But the company had already done something similar. With the first batch of emoji, they clearly identified one character as Asian, giving it narrow eyes and a skull cap. Another was clearly identified as Middle Eastern, with browner skin and a turban. And many were identified as white, with blond hair and blue eyes. Apple should have simply removed the racialized emoji altogether. What they did instead was homogenize and whitewash them. And now, in an absurd twist, you can change the skin tone of emoji that were specified as Asian or Middle Eastern. It’s political correctness gone wild.