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Which skin color emoji should you use? The answer can be more complex than you think

Choosing a skin tone emoji can open a complex conversation about race and identity for some.
Catie Dull
Choosing a skin tone emoji can open a complex conversation about race and identity for some.

Heath Racela identifies as three-quarters white and one-quarter Filipino. When texting, he chooses a yellow emoji instead of a skin tone option, because he feels it doesn't represent any specific ethnicity or color.

He doesn't want people to view his texts in a particular way. He wants to go with what he sees as the neutral option and focus on the message.

"I present as very pale, very light skinned. And if I use the white emoji, I feel like I'm betraying the part of myself that's Filipino," Racela, of Littleton, Mass., said. "But if I use a darker color emoji, which maybe more closely matches what I see when I look at my whole family, it's not what the world sees, and people tend to judge that."

In 2015, five skin tone options became available for hand gesture emojis, in addition to the default Simpsons-like yellow. Choosing one can be a simple texting shortcut for some, but for others it opens a complex conversation about race and identity.

"I use the brown one that matches me," said Sarai Cole, an opera singer in Germany. "I have some friends who use the brown ones, too, but they are not brown themselves. This confuses me."

Cole is originally from California and identifies as Black and an American Descendant of Slavery. She said that while she was not offended when a non-brown friend used a dark emoji, she would like to understand why.

"I think it would be nice if it is their default, but if they're just using it with me or other brown people, I would want to look into that deeper and know why they're doing that," she said.

Jennifer Epperson, from Houston, identifies as Black and said she changed her approach depending on who she was talking to.

"I use the default emoji, the yellow-toned one for professional settings, and then I use the dark brown emoji for friends and family," she said. "I just don't have the emotional capacity to unpack race relations in the professional setting."

Is the yellow emoji really neutral?

A 2018 study published by the University of Edinburgh looked at the use of different skin tone emojis — what it referred to as "modified" emojis — on Twitter to find out if the modifiers contributed to self-representation.

Alexander Robertson, an emoji researcher at Google and Ph.D. candidate involved in the study, said the emoji modifiers were used widely but it was people with darker skin who used them in higher proportions, and more often.

After another look at Twitter data, Andrew McGill, then writer for The Atlantic, found that some white people may stick with the yellow emoji because they don't want to assert their privilege by adding a light-skinned emoji to a text, or to take advantage of something that was created to represent diversity.

Perhaps, like Heath Racela, they simply don't want to think about how their message could be interpreted.

But Zara Rahman, a researcher and writer in Berlin, argues that the skin tone emojis make white people confront their race as people of color often have to do. For example, she shared Sarai Cole's confusion when someone who is white uses a brown emoji, so she asked some friends about it.

"One friend who is white told me that it was because he felt that white people were overrepresented in the space that he was using the [brown] emoji, so he wanted to kind of try and even the playing field," Rahman said. "For me, it does signal a kind of a lack of awareness of your white privilege in many ways."

Rahman, who in 2018 wrote the article for the Daily Dot, "The problem with emoji skin tones that no one talks about," also challenges the view that the yellow emoji — similar to the characters from The Simpsons — is neutral, because on that show, "there were yellow people, and there were brown people and there were Black people."

She said there was a default in society to associate whiteness with being raceless, and the emojis gave white people an option to make their race explicit.

"I completely hear some people are just exhausted [from] having to do that. Many people of color have to do that every day and are confronted with race every day," Rahman said. "But for many white people, they've been able to ignore it, whether that's subconsciously or consciously, their whole lives."

Rahman admits there's no specific answer to all the questions about emoji use but said it was an opportunity to think about how people want to represent their identities.

"I think it's more one of those places where we just have to think about who we are and how we want to represent our identities," she said. "And maybe it does change depending on the season; depending on the context."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.