Racemoji and False Infinity

Last year, Apple introduced skin tone as an option for emoji characters, or ‘racemoji’. Suddenly, race and skin color was introduced into everyday conversation. Interestingly, the Atlantic found a year later that the lightest two skin tones were the least used on twitter. While white twitter users outnumber black twitter users 4-to-1, the analysis of 18,000 tweets found that 52% of emojis with skin tone were the three darkest shades. In this blog post, I examine the rhetoric surrounding the insertion of skin color into emojis, raising questions of representation and neutral-ness, and argue that the discomfort and search for alternatives reflect false infinity.

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The Fitzpatrick scale, used originally in dermatology to study skin cancer, was used to create the Apple emoji. This sample did not include the default yellow emoji color.

In Heterosexuality in the Face of Whiteness: Divided Belief in M. Butterfly, Eng takes on the challenge of making whiteness, so unmarked and standard, visible. In the online discussion of race and emoji, a negotiation around the standard of whiteness is seen. In the Atlantic article, McGill argues that avoidance of the lightest skin tones reflects a shame. “Perhaps the squeamishness on the part of whites has more to do with the acknowledgement that only white people hold this special privilege; to use the white emoji is to express a solidarity with people of color that does not exist,” he states. Other authors focus on the awkwardness of actively using a white skin tone. “The idea of actively selecting a white thumbs up or hair-flip girl over the default yellow feels weird to me,” Kaleigh Rogers writes. Many espouse using the default bright yellow choice, choosing to opt out of the the skin tone conversation all together. But this in itself is problematic. “When white people opt out of racemoji  in favor of the “default” yellow, those symbols become even more closely associated with whiteness—and the notion that white is the only raceless color,” McGill writes.

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Interestingly, the idea of centering whiteness seems to be reflected in the order of face emojis presented. In the order of lightest to darkest, it is apparent that the emoji read most easily as East Asian is the lightest skin tone. The next lightest is most clearly read as white, with blonde hair and tanner skin. In a sense, a parallel can be drawn to the centering of white masculinity presented by Eng, with Asian hypo-masculinity at one end, and Black hyper-masculinity at another end.

We can see Shimizu’s ideas of totality and infinity as presented in Straitjacket Masculinities being negotiated in this discussion on representation as well. The totality is reflected in the complaints of skin tone, the idea of being regulated into a mere five categories. Rogers writes that the new options further segregate people, a sentiment echoed by Lisa Nakamura in The Guardian. Tutt of the Washington Post writes, “Because I’m black, should I now feel compelled to use the “appropriate” brown-skinned nail-painting emoji?” Others note while skin color is customizable, available hairstyles are clearly read as white. Many seem to point out that no matter how many emojis are added, not everyone can be represented. Diversity in this discussion is paradoxically constructed as totality – limiting, segregating, and marked.

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Many discussions search for infinity as the answer to their woes, either espousing the yellow default (with its own problems, as McGill previously mentions), or advocate for a ‘true neutral’. “The company should’ve never made race a question, making the emojis raceless with yellow faces and leaving it at that,” Tutt argues. In the light of the default seen as yellowface by some, “Perhaps green, blue or purple would be an ideal choice as they don’t have racial connotations,” Eli Schiff writes. But, is ignoring representation the best option? I argue it is a false infinity. Once skin color was clearly codified as a choice, abandonment of that is a choice in itself. Emojis obviously aren’t going to solve racism, and while navigating the politics of representation may be tough, ‘raceless’ and ‘neutral’ are clear false infinities.

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