Last week, Apple unveiled their new range of emoji characters, which are currently trialing on OS X 10.10.3 and iOS 8.3 Beta 2, and will be available to all iPhone users once they have downloaded the latest iOS software update. The improved selection of digital icons have been widely hailed in the media as the answer to the ‘lack of diversity’ that has, for some time now, been apparent in the current emoji image base.
Over the past year, Apple has worked with the Unicode Consortium to diversify the characters and have now introduced five new skin tones, offering six in total, that are based on the Fitzpatrick scale of human skin colour. As Unicode’s website explains, “These characters have been designed so that even where diverse colour images for human emoji are not available, readers can see what the intended meaning was.”
Even Santa Claus has had an emoji makeover, and can now be considered as largely reflective of a multitude of nations and races. If users want an African Santa, all they have to do is tap the initial emoji and hold the icon down in order to change the skin colour. Yet, despite this positive expansion, I can’t help but question why such a development has taken so long in the first place? It isn’t as though we have just discovered that there are people of races other than Caucasian living on this planet.
Indeed, as James Lyons reported for The Mirror in May 2014, research from the Tory think tank Policy Exchange found that there are currently “eight million non-white people - 14% of the total - [living] across England and Wales.” By 2050, it is estimated that up to a third of the British population will either be black or from another ethnic minority. These figures change depending on the country within which you live but, in essence, research has shown quite clearly and unequivocally that not everyone living on earth is white!
Until recently, however, if I wanted to reflect or represent anyone of a non-white race within my digital emoji-filled messages, my only real image choice was that of a man wearing a turban, or a man with slightly slimmer shaped oval eyes who seemed to represent an Asian. Aside from the array of yellow smiley faces, which are thought to transcend race and colour and be ubiquitous of our global nation, when it came to the icons that depicted skin tone there was a total of 34 images showing a person, face or body with light skin tone and 21 images of a light skin-toned body part. The black skin tone, however, was not reflected on the emoji app at all, and this I took serious issue with.
“The Unicode emoji characters for people and body parts are meant to be generic, yet following the precedents set by the original Japanese carrier images, they are often shown with a light skin tone instead of a more generic (nonhuman) appearance,” Unicode reports on their website. Indeed, as a young, white, blonde female, I have been allowed plenty of choice. Feeling like a princess? Input a yellow-haired emoji with crown. Dyed my hair brown? Yep, that was covered too. Maybe I had seen my all-white family... well, even better. I was able to include granny, grandpa, baby and mother - even a railway conductor and Grenadier Guard too, should they be present amongst my relatives.
However, if my skin tone was black and I had afro hair - like a vast proportion of the world’s population - I would have been stuck with no other option than to use these same white-skinned icons, regardless of whether they reflected how I looked or what my culture required. I would have been painfully aware that my own race had been forgotten or, more to the point, ignored.
The first emoji was created in the latter part of the twentieth-century and, despite going on to be globally understood and in-demand, the app wiped out - until now - a huge part of the world’s network of individuals simply by lack of inclusion. Yet if I needed a train icon, there have been 13 choices available throughout all this time.
While I appreciate that the wheels are in motion for change within the emoji app, this development has been slow, and that worries me - as does the fact it launched in the first place without the full array of skin tones. There is also the matter of prejudice, which many users feel has come into play with the distinctly yellow skin tone that is apparently indicative of the Asian appearance in the updated version of the app.
There are implications to all of these decisions made by app-producers that I feel are yet to be fully recognised, and which many users still seem to be entirely oblivious to. If it had been the other way around in terms of the colours used, there would have been outcry. This issue would have been resolved long before now. No one would have contemplated such an exclusion of the white skin tone, so why did anyone allow it to happen in reverse?
Leaving out a significant proportion of the world’s population from the emoji app created and demonstrated a complete lack of acceptance and global respect. It reminds me of the issues from previous decades when black children could only play with white dolls, as any other skin tone was quite simply non-existent.
The fact that Apple and Unicode are only just bringing about changes to the digital icons - and rather slowly for that matter - implies that an acknowledgment of varying skin tones comes as an after thought to the construction of the digital population. I struggle to understand why it takes public outcry and widespread dissatisfaction before anything is actually done about it. It suggests that all non-white races come as a by-product of discontent. How long do we have to keep shouting before it becomes second nature to include all races from the start, rather than establishing a pecking order of white first, black second?
The emoji icons originate from the idea of a pictograph - a visual symbol for a word or phrase. In many respects, the emoji is like the modern version of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It transcends all languages, creating a global form of communication in which we can understand precisely what is being said. It has transformed how we speak. Now it needs to start revolutionising how we think.
Words: Grace Carter