The politics of emojis
Carrie Lyell delves into a digital minefield to find out what the emojis we use say about us
Emojis. If you’ve picked up a digital device in the last 10 years, you can’t really have missed them. Young and old, most of us have used them at some point in a text message, tweet or Instagram post. Their popularity is huge: on any given day, around 60 million emojis are used on Facebook, and more than five billion on Messenger, and at the time of writing, 22.5 billion emojis had been sent today on Twitter alone, according to emojitracker.com and the maths of my brother who patiently explained how many zeros a billion has.
The crying laughing face is the most popular universally, followed by the red love heart. But what do these cute little cartoons really say about us? How representative are they of our complex, beautiful and often messy identities? And are they as innocent as they seem, or is there something more sinister lurking in our pockets?
I first started thinking about the politics of emojis when I saw a white friend give a black thumbs up on another white friend’s Facebook post. It seemed like a strange choice to me, when there are several other shades of thumb she could have chosen.
I’m not the only one who thought this digital cultural appropriation was odd. “If a white person were using black emojis whilst in conversation with me, I would definitely think it was a bit weird,” Peta Shillingford, 37, told me. “I’ve read opinions where people equate it to blackface. I’m not sure it’s as severe as that, but it’s certainly interesting.”
Ade Okeowo, a 29-year-old queer woman of colour from London, agrees. “If a white person did use a black emoji, I would find it shows a lack of foresight and good judgement. It wouldn’t make sense. Is it meant to be ironic? Because if it’s a joke, I don’t want my skin colour to be the punchline.”
Peta and Ade got me thinking about my own choice of emojis, and scrolling through my most used, I realised that rather a white thumb, for example, I use a yellow one. After giving it some thought, I realised I felt uneasy about owning my skin tone. I did a bit of research, and it seems many other white people have had similar thoughts, feeling hesitant to use white emojis in case they came off as racist or “oppressive”.
Can emojis, then, be a way of white people like me facing up to and having a conversation about white privilege? “Whiteness is represented everywhere,” Ade says. “It’s never separated or seen as other. Using the correct emoji skin tone forces you to confront that.”
It says a lot about the western-centric world we live – one that values whiteness above all else – that emojis are skewed so heavily towards whiteness as “default”. Yes, emojis are fun and silly, but they can’t be removed from the context in which they were created.
It’s hard to deny having emojis which represent us is important. I definitely sent a fist bump to my Scottish friends when the Saltire was added in last year’s iOS update, and my phone lights up with rainbow flags come Pride season. But they’re frustrating limited as well: there are more options for trains than gender expressions, for example. I’d love to have a curly haired, gooey butch emoji, but make do with a small boy instead. That frustration is multiplied for bi and trans people (where are their flags, huh?) non-binary people, and people with disabilities.
“As someone with a disability to my left hand, I do not feel represented,” says Megan Bacon-Evans, one half of vlogging/blogging babes, Wegan. “Some of my favourite emojis use hands, and I still use them to convey what I’m typing, but sometimes it feels completely wrong to use them as it’s not me.”
Megan recently called Apple out on social media for failing to represent people like her, and was thrilled when it was announced recently that they’d put in a request to Emoji HQ – also known as the Unicode Consortium – for various emojis including a wheelchair and a prosthetic leg. But it remains to be seen if they’ll be given the green light. And Megan feels they still fall short. “As great as they are, they still do not represent me. I would love to see variations of the current emojis to represent disabilities.”
Ade, meanwhile, would love to see more diversity in emoji offerings, from skin tones – “five shades aren’t enough” – to clothing choices and hair. “Like many women, I change my hair a lot. One week I can have locs, the next I could be wearing a wig or have my natural curly hair out. This isn’t reflected in emoji options.”
Peta says as a “🙅🏾🌈🙌🏾🤓⚽️” – that’s a “brown, clueless, football playing, lesbian, nerd who likes to high five” for those who don’t speak emoji – she does feel represented for the most part, but says we “still have a long way to go if emojis are to further reflect the rich tapestries of our identities.”
Sadly, it’s not up to Megan or Ade or Peta or me which emojis see the light of day. The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit which decides which emojis make it onto keyboards, is comprised of digital leaders from tech giants including Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. Membership to the consortium costs between $11,000 and $18,000, and – unsurprisingly – most of these people are rich white men. It’s natural to assume, therefore, that emojis in our pockets reflect their interests and their politics – not ours. And that’s hella problematic.
In a fascinating piece for Salon, Keith A Spencer examines the commodification of our feelings and emotions, and says that if emojis were to have a “defining political stance” it would be neoliberalism. “The Unicode Consortium is not a democratic organ, and thus, emojis are approved and produced via a top-down, technocratic hierarchy,” he writes. “They’re not by us, but they’re for us… their politics will never stray beyond what is acceptable to their members. That means any feminism we read into emoji will be corporate feminism; any identity politics we try to find will be corporate sanctioned identity politics. A hijab-wearing emoji is acceptable to the companies that promote emoji because a hijab-wearing emoji doesn’t change their ability to sell us products – I’ll eat my words the day I see a drone bomber, a picket sign, or any depiction of poverty in emoji form.”
Spencer is right; emojis are fun, but don’t expect too much from them. They will only ever be a reflection of the worldview of those who create them, and these colourful, capitalist characters will always, always, always erase illness, violence and the many other ugly realities of life. By all means use them – and enjoy them – but think about what your emoji choices say about you. After all, in the words of Skunk Anansie, Yes It’s Fucking Political. And remember: sometimes, only words will do.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of DIVA magazine.
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