While texting with an acquaintance recently to iron out plans for drinks, something happened that gave me pause. “See you there!” she texted, accompanied by three brown flamenco-dancer emoji.
Normally, this would not be weird. Except that the person I was texting with is very white.
It wasn't so much that it was offensive to me personally — but it was a little jarring. I had never seen it happen before, and it was a little discomforting.
On a given day, my skin tone is somewhere between the third and fourth shade of emoji. When I send a text message, email, or tweet, I pick the third 100% of the time, because I like to stay in my own lane and respect the privilege that comes with having relatively lighter skin.
I'm Asian-American, and colorism still permeates my culture. Though discrimination based on color, often among people of the same racial community, is a different beast than racism — it's harmful just the same. Though Asian-Americans face racism as well, as someone with relatively lighter skin, I can't not think about that privilege as I choose how I express my identity. Text messages, included.
That’s why it surprised me when my friend used an emoji that's so much darker than her actual skin tone. She demurred when I asked her about this, saying that to use the lightest emoji, her closest match, felt like an expression of white solidarity which seemed tone-deaf in these fraught times. “I’m a little embarrassed now that you brought it up,” she said. “I never really thought about it until now. But now that you mention it, I guess I just feel uncomfortable with the lightest emoji because it’s like aggressively declaring whiteness in a time when white people can kind of be the worst.”
I get where she's coming from, but using an emoji much darker than your own skin tone connotes a certain lack of self-awareness. This action, of trying on a different identity for fun in your digital interactions, seems reserved for those who already move through the world with a certain amount of privilege. While it doesn't mean that you're racist, it signals a lack of awareness of what this mean to people of color on the receiving end of your emoji.
Emoji selection may feel like a frivolous topic in light of serious racial violence going on in the world. It's a digital microaggression, and it is a part of how we talk about and interact with race on a daily basis. There’s a term for this: digital blackface, or as Laur M. Jackson described in an article for The Awl in 2014, “non-Black people making anonymous claims to a Black identity through contemporary technological mediums, such as social media." People have also been known to use GIFs that don’t correspond to their race — though that’s a little different. (While it can be argued that GIFs simply capture an essence that you’re trying to portray, emoji are much less ambiguous.)
Other white people have expressed feeling the same way as my friend, admitting that they’ve never themselves considered using the lightest emoji. Another Refinery29 editor mentioned that she has a friend who uses conspicuously dark emoji. She asked her about it, and the friend said she uses two emoji-skin tone settings: a darker one in the summer, denoting a tan, and switches to a medium tone during cooler months.
Maybe the mere fact that we have to select a race in emoji usage is what's awkward. When Apple first unveiled different skin tones for emoji, it was a big deal. It meant that people of color could finally choose emoji that represented us, or at least it's closer until there's a way to provide a spectrum of shades to match everyone. Though these were released with diversity in mind, Unicode Consortium, the company behind emoji designs, is fully aware of the fact that not everyone will be represented through the five skin tones, which are not based on race at all, a spokesperson tells Refinery29. Instead, the colors were chosen using the Fitzpatrick scale, which is a dermatological scale of tone.
At the time of their release, the emoji’s default shade was a Simpsons-esque yellow that didn't land well with many Asian users. The default wasn’t meant to represent anyone, as Unicode told The Washington Post in 2015, but the long and racist history of Asian people being referred to as “yellow” wasn’t lost on people, who called it out across social media and tech blogs.
Though the intent was to represent more people, the way it plays out in real life — such as my interaction with my white friend — is not very comfortable at all. Cultural appropriation in certain directions are never comfortable anyway — and while emoji co-opting may not always exactly be cultural appropriation, they do share some elements (e.g. using an aspect of someone’s cultural identity however you please, without due respect). And in this case, a lighter skinned person using a darker emoji can be uncomfortable, whereas the reverse might not be true. In the same way that reverse racism isn’t really a thing, a darker skinned person using a light emoji might be weird, but the concepts of systemic disenfranchisement don’t really come into play in the same way.
I’m not here to suggest that a white person using dark emoji equates to all-out racism, nor am I here to police your emoji usage. Whether or not it's "acceptable" or "okay" to use a certain emoji obviously depends on your individual circumstance. After all, they’re just emoji. But selecting a skin tone with which to present yourself is a way to acknowledge that we don’t all share the same lived experiences. What are you saying if you choose one that isn't yours?