Hundreds of new emoji are on the way, but don’t expect them to encourage more diverse pictograph communication.
On Monday, the Unicode Consortium announced 250 new emoji characters, a comprehensive list of which is available at Emojipedia, though most of the visuals have not yet been unveiled. Among the new additions are everyday objects like “Bed” and “Wastebasket” as well as oddities like “Man in Business Suit Levitating.” “Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended” and “Raised Hand With Part Between Middle And Ring Fingers” that are sure to pepper late-night text conversations. One mysterious emoji that will keep us guessing until the images are unveiled is titled simply “Compression.” What users won’t find, however, are people of color.
Unicode first introduced a standardized set of emoji characters in 2010, allowing third parties like Apple to render their own illustrations of the characters, resulting in an overwhelmingly white human emoji palate. A number of emoji are presented as racially-neutral smiley faces, but just as many depict white people without an option for different skin tones. Even the standard hand signal emoji bear white skin. In March, a petition asking Apple to increase the diversity in its iOS emoji set attracted thousands of signatures, complaining that “of the more than 800 Emojis [sic], the only two resembling people of color are a guy who looks vaguely Asian and another in a turban.”
Both Apple and Unicode have responded to the criticisms, and while they both admit there’s a problem, each one has shifted the blame for their lack of diversity. Apple, for starters, says that Unicode needs to introduce a wider variety of standard emoji that can then be adapted to platforms like iOS, Android and Twitter.
“Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms. There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard,” Katie Cotton, Apple’s vice president of worldwide corporate communications, told MTV in March.
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Meanwhile, Unicode has claimed that the lack of diversity rests entirely with third parties like Apple, Google and Twitter, which display the emoji characters in their own unique way. Unicode maintains that its standard emoji characters are very basic and do not have room for racial or ethnic divisions.
“Unicode does not require a particular racial or ethnic appearance—or for that matter, a particular hair style: bald or hirsute. However, because there are concerns regarding the emoji characters for people, proposals are being developed by Unicode Consortium members to provide more diversity,” reads a portion of Unicode’s FAQ.
As Tim Whitlock’s chart of emoji visualizations demonstrates, there is a lot of variation in the end result after platforms have interpreted Unicode’s designs. One of the most contentious emoji is the “Man with Turban”:
The basic Unicode visualization of the emoji is fairly simple, depicting a stark black and white outline of a man in a turban. There is, true to Unicode’s word, little room to read race into the image. It’s the platforms that assigned any racial features: The iOS version illustrates a darker-skinned man wearing the turban, while Android shows a mustachioed white-skinned man donning the traditional Sikh headdress.
No provider has come close to establishing a truly diverse lineup of emjoi character, but some have taken steps in that direction. Twitter, for instance, depicts the standard police officer emoji as a darker-skinned man, but still falls back on white as a default for other all but two other emoji.
In the end, the problem rests on the shoulders of both Unicode and third parties. Third parties have the option of illustrating emoji however they wish, but universally stick to white as a default. Unicode, meanwhile, has the option of introducing more characters that would push Apple and Twitter to move beyond its majority-white character base. At this point, both need to take responsibility and introduce more inclusive emoji.