Emoji of Varied Skin Tones

emojis of color

RED Hearts are guest posts on I Heart Daily from the authors of RED: Teenage girls in America write on what fires up their lives today.

Emoji-ers: have you seen the newest additions to your arsenal of little icons? Zoe Mendelson, 24, in Mexico City, lends her emoji expertise to the upgrade: 

They have arrived!!! Emoji of varied skin tones are here!

Apple’s new operating system, released last week, includes the more diverse characters. So watch out for them with your next OS update. Each emoji who shows skin (faces & hands) will now appear as the default starting point in racially-neutral Simpson-ish yellow. From there, how cool is this? To choose your emoji color, you just hold select on a character. Up pops an array of skin tones to choose from. You can even do this for Santa Claus.

To determine the new spectrum, Unicode -- the international consortium responsible for emoji and translating them across countries and platforms -- used the Fitzpatrick scale of skin tones, created in 1975 by a Harvard researcher known as the “Father of Academic Dermatology.” (Yes that’s a real thing. How to emoji it up? Hmm.)

Nobody is happier about this than I am. While writing the Emoji Major column for Co.Design, I spent hours and hours trying to figure out how to possibly and sensitively represent people of color with the limited character set -- my second column was Jay Z's Picasso Baby project, for just one example. I still ended up getting called a racist on the Internet.

It's about time for some diversity in the 800-plus emoji population! It's just not OK for such an important worldwide, cross-cultural phenomenon as emoji to feature almost all-white people. Even Miley knows this (and knew it in 2012).

However, I do want to make the point that in areas far from race, the fundamental limitations of emoji are a big part of their charm and challenge. This is a language in which icons that have been identified as central to our everyday communication include a cactus house plant, mochi balls, a floppy disc and a poodle with proper show-poodle haircut.

It’s their very arbitrariness that makes them so lovable.

Now that there are emoji of color, does this usher in the era of an emoji of cheese? Probably. Nothing can exist in a cultural vacuum forever, and sometimes, say in the case of racial representation, that’s a good thing. But it also might mean emoji will get less…weird.

I leave you all with a big question about issues swirling around the little people: Why, in the gmail version, is the little turban-dude emoji frowning?!

RED Hearts guest poster Zoe Mendelson is an author of RED: Teenage girls in America write on what fires up their lives today, which is out in paperback.