Inclusive or offensive?

Understanding emoji diversity
Noor Naqaweh/THE VARSITY
Noor Naqaweh/THE VARSITY

THE #OscarsSoWhite controversy made one thing clear: an increasing number of people are willing to challenge the multiple inequities created and perpetuated by racial discrimination. A dialogue about inclusivity is needed and will likely continue to take place online. While the Internet provides a space for these conversations, it can also be home to a host of other problems.

One example is Apple’s racially ‘diverse’ emojis, which offer users a selection of different skin tones to choose from when expressing themselves without text.

This well-intentioned change may have done more harm than good. Josiana Farber, a second-year student studying global health and psychology, thinks so: “Before the changes were introduced, I didn’t think twice about using the traditional yellow-coloured emojis. However, now that the different skin tones and races are options, I feel obliged to use the correct emoji. I am careful about using the appropriate skin tone out of fear of critique from others.”

Despite some criticism, there is an argument to be made in favour of racially diverse emojis as a sincere attempt to tackle the problem of underrepresentation. Perhaps Apple can be forgiven for its oversights, such as not including enough variations of hair colour. Those who are from racialized communities and have experienced feelings of ‘otherness’ may see emojis of colour as a step in the right direction – even if they aren’t perfect.

Some have suggested that emoji diversity can, and should, be used to combat sexism as well; a sentiment that was echoed by Amy Butcher in the New York Times. In her article “Emoji Feminism,” Butcher notes that the representation of women in the emoji universe reinforces traditional gender roles. She writes that “for women actually engaging in an activity or profession, there were only archetypes,” pointing to emojis of flamenco dancers, brides, and princesses.

While women in the emoji universe are afforded the luxury of being professional brides, men are part of the police force or work in construction. It’s ironic that while we try to deconstruct stereotypes in the real world, we unthinkingly reinforce them in our digital spaces.

With each progressive step taken, a host of inevitable shortcomings present themselves. As far as race is concerned, fully accurate representations are likely unreachable. How far should we go to alter the features of our digital counterparts to achieve racial authenticity?

Diversifying the types of voices that are heard and the kinds of people represented in society has always been a challenge. To solve these problems, there is still plenty of work to be done in the real world and online.

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