Black people are more likely to be active on Twitter than white people, according to Pew Research. But according to my math—based on U.S. demographics and Internet access stats—white Twitter users still outnumber their black counterparts four-to-one. Pew’s report doesn’t include other racial groups, including Asians. But it appears fair to say that light-colored emojis are less common than their light-skinned user counterparts.
This might be the case because most default emoji, although they appear yellow, are actually white. Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguistics Ph.D. and consultant in San Francisco who has studied emoticons, notes that many of the default symbols are phenotypically white: The symbol has blonde hair on Apple devices, etc. “It’s not surprising to me that people are not opting to go lighter, even if that’s closer to what their skin tone is, because they’re kind of represented by the default anyway,” he said.
But this effect may also signal a squeamishness on the part of white people. The folks I talked to before writing this story said it felt awkward to use an affirmatively white emoji; at a time when skin-tone modifiers are used to assert racial identity, proclaiming whiteness felt uncomfortably close to displaying “white pride,” with all the baggage of intolerance that carries. At the same time, they said, it feels like co-opting something that doesn’t exactly belong to white people—weren’t skin-tone modifiers designed so people of color would be represented online?
Last year, the hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, debated whether white people can use darker skin tones when sending emoji, or if that amounts to cultural appropriation. At the time, the new racemoji had just launched on the iPhone.
Friedman: I have this question that I’ve been meaning to ask you, because it’s something that happens when my new emoji keyboard pops up. As a white person, I am as excited as everyone that there are many new racial options for some of the hand and face emoji … and I want to use them. Obviously, I was someone who was not happy with the default, all of them being white. But, then I felt, especially when I'm texting another white person, is it weird for me to text me brown hands clapping? Is that a weird thing?
Sow: Wow, that’s white people weirdness. Inter-white-person weirdness … I’m going to say, for one, welcome to our world—where the default was always one thing, and you’re trying to make a new default. Yeah, I guess it’s weird for you. I personally always default to the darkest emoji now … I live in a world where there was always ever one default.
Friedman: Well, I live in the same world, where there’s only one default.
Sow: Yeah, I know, but you were the default ... It’s an obvious change that is happening in real time... but I don't think that it should be weird. It’s like, who cares?
Friedman: It’s something that I think about. It’s not like I’m losing sleep over which emoji to send. But it’s definitely something I think about.
A year later, Friedman is a bit closer to figuring it out. “Some of it, for me, is a question of what context are you using the emoji in,” she said over the phone. “You can kind of see the emoji as divorced from yourself—this is a symbol of thumbs up, a symbol of high five. But there’s also the view that this is me giving you a high five.” While she’s willing to use darker emoji in the former case, the latter seems more fraught.