Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji

Light-skin-tone symbols are used far less often in the U.S. than their darker counterparts. Does shame explain the disparity?

Moving rows of the thumbs-up emoji in yellow and dark skin tones interrupted by a row of white-skin-tone thumbs-down emoji
Emojipedia / Apple / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic
is simple, uncontroversial. But what about ?
When they were first launched in 2015, emoji skin tones corrected an obvious wrong. Previously, if a black man or a Latino woman wanted to text a friend the thumbs-up emoji on an iPhone, a white hand would show up. The Unicode Consortium’s solution made the new default color a Simpsons yellow and allowed users to tint certain emoji with one of five skin tones, ranging from “pale white” to “darkest brown.” People took to the new tones immediately, reveling in the freedom to post    and    in shades that represented them.
But as emoji with skin tones spread to Twitter, Facebook, and workplace chat applications like Slack, I noticed something I hadn’t expected: While I saw plenty of and , almost no one I knew used the lightest skin tone, or even the second-lightest. Indeed, as a white man who tends to be either pale or sunburnt, I had never considered using it myself. When I did switch briefly to the lightest tone at work, it felt … weird.
Using data from Twitter’s streaming API, I tried to quantify this effect. I narrowed my search to the United States (more on my reasoning for that later) and filtered for tweets that used emoji with skin tones. It didn’t take long to build up a dataset of 18,000 tweets. Of that set, only 19 percent used an emoji with the lightest skin tone (). Another 30 percent used the second-lightest (). The remaining 52 percent used the darker three tones (, and ).

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.

More than 20 years after the birth of the internet, it’s striking to think some people once saw the online world as a raceless utopia, where a user could leave his or her physical identity behind and be judged solely on what he or she said. That theory was always flawed, but social media has dispelled it for good.

It was naive think otherwise, says Peter Chow-White, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. His studies have cemented his opinion that the internet is a reflection of society, and race is reproduced online in pretty much the same way as the offline world. That’s what makes emoji so interesting—they offer direct evidence of that effect.

“We’re taking these symbols, and we’re wrapping our own ideas around them that are heavily racialized,” he says. “They’re just zero and ones. But we take zeros and ones and we wrap meaning about them. It flies in the face of technology and computer code being neutral and value-free.”

It’s worth noting the unpopularity of white emoji tentatively appears confined to the United States. Elsewhere in the world, including the Middle East, white emoji are more common. “This conversation could be completely different in Africa,” Chow-White says.

In a Twitter conversation last year, Aditya Mukerjee, an engineer in New York, advocated for eliminating the racial modifiers altogether, arguing there are few situations when a generic emoji and a bit of context are not enough. For all the white angst about using white emoji, he’d argue using a darker skin tone is an even bigger decision for people of color.

“Every time I use an emoji, I have to make a choice: Do I use a colored racemoji, and draw attention to my ethnicity (even when it’s not pertinent), or do I use a default emoji, which may misrepresent me altogether?” he wrote in an email. “It’s disempowering because people of color are uniquely burdened with this choice.”

This seems to be the crux of the matter. White people don’t have to use racemoji or risk denying their identity, as Mukerjee does; the default works fine. 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.

So it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. 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. But that, of course, is already a foregone conclusion in American society. The Internet cannot escape the bonds of our minds, as much as people may want it to.

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