(Revised) Racemoji and False Infinity

Last year, Apple introduced skin tone for emojis, or ‘racemoji’. Suddenly, race and skin color was introduced into everyday text 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 skin coloration of emojis using queer of color critique, raising questions of representation and neutral-ness, and argue that the discomfort and search for alternatives reflect false infinity. False infinities relegate concepts as unknowable and unrelatable, erasing their presence. The false infinity of neutrality and colorless living extends to the attribution of systemic racism to circumstance or individual flaws.

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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, Eng takes on the challenge of making whiteness, so unmarked and standard, visible. In the online discussion of racemoji, 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 held by white people. “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,” Rogers writes. Many espouse the default bright yellow choice, opting out of the the skin tones 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. This reinforces color as non-standard and abnormal in relation to white, the assumed and the norm. The squeamishness of whites to use a representative skin tone reflects a uncomfortableness of being made visible, as if they were boxed into a representation of themselves (like all minorities). It is racist for whites to desire an infinity of representation when white hegemony denies infinity to people of color not just through emojis, but daily life through stereotypes and systematic racism.

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Interestingly, centering whiteness is 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. Even while the emojis are arranged from light to dark skin tone, the most apparent whiteness is not at the end of the scale. And, it appears that whites could conceivably pick from three skin tones, Asians from one, and black/brown only from two. Ironically, it appears in this attempt to advocate diversity, whiteness is being celebrated, while minorities are literally, at the margins. 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. Another parallel is that of civilization-centering mentioned by Lee in Beauty Between Empires, where a ‘uncivilized’ group and a ‘mismanaging-liberal-freedoms’ group are used to bookend whiteness, rendering both groups periphery and unwhole. It is important to realize that white hegemony extends to things even as seemingly trivial as emoji to undermine representation.

We can see Shimizu’s ideas of totality and infinity as presented in Straitjacket Masculinities being negotiated 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. Other conservative writers complain that now “diversity is racist” and it is the complainers that are racist, sending the message that activists are always asking for too much. Diversity in these discussions is paradoxically constructed as totality – limiting, segregating, and marked. To make color visible is hindering instead of empowering. The social construct of race and its very real material consequences, are swept under the rug in the name of color-free conversations.

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Commonly, throughout these articles, the problem of representation is deemed to large to ever be fully tackled. This rhetoric pushes for erasure of race from the conversation. Many discussions search for infinity as the answer to their woes, either espousing the yellow default (with its own problems, as McGill mentions), or advocating 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, ignoring representation 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 that only whites could pretend to claim in the first place. Erasing racial representation for minorities in the name of a more comfortable, easy conversation for white people is clearly symptomatic of white hegemony.

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