Emoji made lots of headlines in 2015: Instagram enabled emoji hashtags, the characters came up in court cases, and the official word of the year wasn't a word at all, it was an emoji! (😂 to be exact.)
One of the biggest shifts in how we use the characters came in April, when our collective prayers were answered in the form of a much needed emoji ethnicity update. So now that we have a spectrum of melanin options at our fingertips, emoji racism is over, right? Not so fast.
There are still a few issues in the wake of the update:
Adding different shades of skin doesn't mean people will use them wisely. Unfortunately some people have taken the new symbols as an invitation to generalize about race. Take a quick spin through some of the new emoji hashtags on Instagram and you'll see a mix of uses, from young sikh men using #👳 to tag fashion-forward selfies (👍), to some rather distasteful uses of #👲, like, for example, announcing you're visiting Manhattan's Chinatown (👎). In fact, there are very few situations in which I can imagine using 'man with gua pi mao'—in any of the available skin tones—that wouldn't be a little questionable.
Remember, if you're using an emoji of a race other than your own, ask yourself if you are using it specifically or generally. If you're using an emoji, or any descriptor to make generalizations about race, ask yourself, "Why?" Then maybe listen to Kendrick Lamar until the social reality of institutionalized racism comes into focus, and make a different joke instead.
There will always be someone who feels unrepresented. Even with the five shade spectrum there are eye shapes and hair types and nose proportions that are not captured. It's more than skin deep too: take a look at the food tab and you'll see that even with the fierce battle for taco inclusion waged earlier this year, which Taco Bell itself reportedly got involved in, there are still many traditional ethnic delicacies left out. Everyone deserves to feel represented by our new modern hieroglyphs, but in a pantheon that now includes over 300 characters, with a governing body that now gets lobbied by corporations throwing their weight behind one symbol or another, inclusion has only gotten more complicated. Have you looked at the flag section recently?
One thing is clear: in order to expand emoji to include a diversity of cultures, we are going to have to come up with a new method of organization to we can more easily adjust and access them.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.