There are emoji for pears, koalas, and jack-o’-lanterns; for a pine tree, a pizza slice, and a dragon’s head on a plate.
But there are no emoji for black people. That seems likely to change soon: Diverse emoji are coming.
The next system update for Apple Mac and iOS devices will let users type emoji with a variety of skin tones, a beta software release revealed Monday. Each human-like emoji, from the smiley face to the thumbs-up, will be available in one of five skin tones. And emoji that do not have a racial modifier will no longer appear as white—they’ll instead appear a Simpsons-esque yellow.
This new update will let Apple smartphone users send each other diverse emoji. But as the emoji standard is jointly implemented by Apple and Google, it signals that the Unicode Consortium has chosen a method of typing emoji with different skin tones. (It's unlikely Apple would implement these changes if they weren't going to be the standard.)
All this has been a long time coming. Emoji are part of Unicode, the vast and important standard used across nearly all modern computing systems. Unicode is what ensures that an “a” on my screen looks like an “a” on yours, and that ★ stays a star everywhere. Emoji—small pictographs that can be typed among paragraphs of text, somewhat like this ☺—actually predate modern smartphones, as they emerged first from Japan’s chaotic phone ecosystem. But it was not until 2010, with support from Apple and Google, the two most-prominent American smartphone manufacturers, that Unicode standardized emoji.
The standard has periodically been expanded to address gaps. In 2012, the Unicode Consortium added emoji of same-sex couples to the standard (or, at least, emoji of two men and two women holding hands). A further expansion was planned for this year, too, which would include representations of a sword, a satellite, and a hand flipping the bird.
But with new edition, emoji commentators (myself included) asked: Where are the emoji for people of color? For while there were hundreds of emoji, and more than 100 different representations of human bodies or faces, nearly all were white or a “neutral” yellow. Only two—an apparent East Asian boy, and an apparent South Asian man—seemed to be people of color. There were no non-white women whatsoever, and no black people.
Then, in November of last year, the Unicode Consortium made a quiet announcement in its draft of the new Unicode standard. Different skin tones would be introduced to the emoji standard through a toggle board: A user could click and hold on an emoji while typing it and a menu would coming up, letting them type it in one of five skin tones. (The tones correspond to the Fitzpatrick scale, a numerical method of categorizing human skin pigmentation.)
“People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone,” said the draft.
Still, the draft was just that: a draft. The document itself warned that “these sets may change before this document is final.” It was unclear how long it would take for diverse emoji to become a real option for users.
It now appears that Apple has now adopted a similar implementation in the next version of its iOS and Mac operating systems. MacRumors first reported that developer betas of both systems, distributed to developers today, allowed for the new emoji. What’s more, the feature will be in the next periodic upgrade for both systems, meaning it could debut in a matter of weeks or months. Users likely won’t have to wait for the next major operating systems—iOS 9 or Mac OS 10.11—neither of which yet have an official release date.
It is unclear when Android users will receive a similar update. (Google declined to comment on its plans.)
MacRumors also reports that the update “brings 32 new country flags, including flags for Canada, Australia, and India.” As I’ve previously detailed, emoji flags are implemented in a more peculiar way, because the Unicode standard is designed to outlive any individual nation-state.
Emoji have long been one of the most accessible parts of the Unicode standard, a piece of technological infrastructure which makes the Internet possible. They’re also just fun. (I mean, a taco pictogram! Who doesn’t want that?) Today’s update makes them even more so, and fixes one of their most glaring—and embarrassing—errors.
Now all we need is an avocado emoji.
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