👍🏼 or 👎?
June 22, 2018 7:46 PM   Subscribe

I am white. When interacting in public, should I use the emoji skin tone that most closely matches my own, or should I stick with yellow?

I am aware that there may not be one perfect consensus answer here, I'm more trying to get a variety of perspectives on this issue. I'm especially interested in perspectives from people of color, to the extent that they want to offer them. I'm also open to the idea that I'm way overthinking this.

Should I, a white person, use the skin-tone emoji that most closely matches my own skin (for me this would be the second lightest tone) or should I just use yellow? I'm not talking about private text messages here, but more like when I'm on social media where my contributions are publicly viewable.

I get that for people of color, having emoji that more-or-less accurately represent what they look like is a fairly important way of creating representation and visibility in what is all too often presumed to be an all-white arena. That's not an issue for me—I'm already well represented. However, part of me feels like I should go ahead and use emoji that reflect my own color rather than just inhabiting the default yellow color, since I feel like being seen as a "default human" is a part of my white privilege that reinforces white supremacy. Also, it's what I actually look like.

On the other hand, I worry that using white emojis somehow minimizes the representation-and-visibility effect that people of color derive from using darker ones. I have a hard time articulating why I feel that way, but I guess it feels a little bit like maybe I'm appropriating someone else's movement and centering myself to the detriment of others. I also worry that my deliberate choice to use white emojis might read as a white power thing, and I'd really like to avoid that.

So, I'm in tension over what really feels like a pretty trivial issue. And you know, maybe it is trivial and other people just don't worry about it or even notice, but here I am. What if anything do people think of all this? The future is so weird.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
So, I'm in tension over what really feels like a pretty trivial issue.

We recently got these in our slack channels, and people have been using ones that are a match to their skin tone. I think it's great that people are doing this, and great that people who previously were the "default" skin tone, myself included, are having to grapple with thinking about it. I haven't come to any conclusions on what white people "should" do in this case, I think it's ultimately a personal choice, but I think engaging with questions like this is important, trivial as this tiny example of it may be.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:58 PM on June 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

If you are using an emoji to represent specifically yourself, use the one for your skin tone. If you are representing an everyman, a generic person, use the yellow one.

I actually don’t think it matters outside the context you wish to convey (“I peraonally am feeling winky face right now” vs “One feels winky face in this circumstance, doesn’t one?”) but I’m white and I don’t have to think about it because privilege. My personal preference is to use punctuation.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:01 PM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have very fair skin and use the one that matches my skin tone.
posted by holborne at 8:20 PM on June 22, 2018

Very pale Hispanic guy here, in the weird position that as a Hispanic person who was the son of an immigrant I am a Person of Color on paper, but in reality my color is the palest pink.

I totally understand your concerns. But let’s look at it this way: When Apple came out with multicolored emojis, donyou think there intention was for POC tonuse the appropriate shades, white people to use yellow, and white supremacists to use the appropriate shades? Nah, I don’t think so.

Also, when Apple came out with multicolored emojis, did the POC activists I follow on Twitter erupt in disgust that they had provided emojis specifically for white supremacists? No they did not.

So I think you’re cool using an emoji that matches your skin color.
posted by ejs at 8:45 PM on June 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Use your color.
posted by SoulOnIce at 9:00 PM on June 22, 2018

Use smilies. :-)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:08 PM on June 22, 2018 [8 favorites]

I'm white, and I used to use the "default" yellow emojis, but I overheard a non-white person saying they wished white people would use the white people emojis, because (a) own your whiteness and (b) quit implying that white is equivalent to default. So I changed my stuff to use the lightest skin tone one instead. It still feels weird sometimes, but maybe occasionally being made to be extremely aware of my whiteness isn't a bad thing?
posted by jordemort at 10:26 PM on June 22, 2018 [26 favorites]

I use the yellow emoji as a nod to people who have had to use emojis that didn't match their own skin tone. I am glad that others have choices but as a white person I don't feel like this is a battle I need to win.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:36 PM on June 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you are over thinking this, but if you are referring to yourself, represent yourself as you see yourself.

Having said that, I am not on a lot of social media so take that for what it is worth. I also do not see a reason to ever use an emoji when you can use your words.
posted by AugustWest at 10:51 PM on June 22, 2018

When these came out on Slack, we had a productive day at work holding our hands up to the screen and trying to get a match on our various skin tones. Don't overthink it, it's all good.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:24 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a white person, I use the default yellow. However, in writing this I realized that if default yellow were not available, I would use the fairest option... that’s an interesting thing to note. I don’t know what to do with that information yet, but there it is.
posted by samthemander at 11:48 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a POC but I wasn't previously aware that one could pick the color of one's emoji, so take my opinion with a grain of salt:

If I were to see white people in the U.S. using lighter-colored emoji to match their skin color, I would wonder if they were white supremacists making a point of identifying themselves as white.

I emphasize "wonder," not "conclude," since this very thread is demonstrating the range of opinions, but the thought would definitely cross my mind.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 12:45 AM on June 23, 2018 [22 favorites]

I never noticed the emojis had a particular color because to me they are a cartoon representing an emotion, not a person. I will have to go look at my phone, but I am still not changing from the default, whatever it may be. I think it is a pale orange, not my favorite color in any event.
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 12:56 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've wondered this too. It's not trivial to think about your skin color and privilege. So thanks for asking this.
posted by shw at 2:30 AM on June 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I work for a company where whites are a minority and we use emojis all day long. My black colleagues usually use the darker toned emojis, some of other non-black POC use the lighter toned ones, some of the white colleagues use the palest ones, and many of us use the default yellow because we’re lazy and it’s the first one to pop up. I’m a POC and use the default, which is half out of laziness and half out of “none of the skin colors really matches my skin so whatever.”

That said, I think it depends on your audience. If we all used the default yellow and one white person used the fairest one instead, it looks like they’re trying to be different and celebrate whiteness. If we were all POC and used our matching skin tone emoji, but we had one white colleague who used the default, it looks like they are not being sensitive.

So I guess if I were to make up guidelines, I would say if you’re white, stick with the default until you get a feeling of the culture, and change it appropriately.
posted by umwhat at 3:25 AM on June 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

When I use emojis, I use the one I can find first. Because there's a lot of tabs and I rarely use emojis.
posted by Kalmya at 5:15 AM on June 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks a lot for all the perspectives shared so far, this is very illuminating. I just wanted to say with regard to the "just use your words" thing that's been mentioned a few times that this would be my personal preference, but there are contexts in which it would look weird not to use emoji! Specifically when commenting on people's Instagram posts or replying to their comments on mine, not using them would come off as self-important and out of touch. It's rare to write more than one short sentence there, and people use almost as many emoji as actual words! It's a whole different world.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:18 AM on June 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

As another data point, I'm very pale skinned but I use the middle shade of emojis, for a few reasons:
a) I really dislike the yellow of the yellow emojis
b) I think the middle-shade emoji has better contrast against a white background than the lighter-shade emojis (as a White person I'd be a bit concerned that using the darkest shades as my default would come across to others as me trying to make a statement of some sort and would draw comment)
c) the two lightest skinned people emojis have black or blonde hair, which I don't. I don't have brown hair either (my hair colour isn't a selectable option) but this 👩🏽 still feels more like me than these 👩🏻👩🏼👩
d) when I'm using emojis that aren't stand-ins for me I like to introduce more variety. I think there are a lot of people out there who could benefit from seeing this more often: 🎅🏿👩🏾‍🚀👨🏾‍🚒👮🏿‍♀️
posted by Secret Sparrow at 6:08 AM on June 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

At work, everyone has all the same emojis. I'm the big wide world of social media, that's not true. At work, is see if there is a norm and either follow that or deliberately reject it. On open social media, lazy makes me yellow.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:32 AM on June 23, 2018

I've wondered about this too. At work, where most of my coworkers are white, I've noticed that when someone of color uses a slightly darker thumbs-up on a post, white coworkers often also click on that (just showing that they agree, and maybe not noticing the color, even though some of them normally use a paler color). To me, it seems weird to have, say, one darker thumbs-up and then a bunch of pale thumbs-ups. I almost wish that the default color was green, or something. But I also hate non-text-based emoji and wish they weren't everywhere.
posted by pinochiette at 6:37 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's been a fair amount written about this, including both opinion and data. Some reading: Thoughts on white people using dark-skinned emoji, Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji, White Skin, Black Emojis? (from NPR Code Switch), Are You Guilty Of Emoji Blackface?. Most of these are on the theme of "if you are white, don't use dark skinned emoji even if you mean well" and less about the cartoon yellow.
posted by Nelson at 8:36 AM on June 23, 2018 [14 favorites]

Nelson posted some great articles. The NPR Code Switch one has this paragraph:

McGill writes that now that there are options, when white people send a high-five with white skin, it feels like sending a white high-five. For people who are used to thinking of their skin as the default, acknowledging whiteness in their digital hand gestures can feel deeply uncomfortable.

This really hit home for me (I am white). Thanks for posting this AskMe. I'm going to avoid the default yellow ones from now on and think about my use of emojis in general. If I use an emoji representing a person, I'll use the palest one that is closest to my skin tone.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I, a white person, use a random assortment of skin tones in my emojis- the whole gamut from pale to dark....it makes me happy to see the range of tones in my little pixel people! It didn't occur to me that there needed to be much of my own personal identity/race wrapped up with them....but the headline "Are You Guilty of Emoji Blackface" sounds concerning, so it looks like I've got some reading to do....
posted by Bibliogeek at 10:15 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I switched from using the fairest (I’m pale and have blonde hair) to using yellow after I dated a string of closet racists, one of whom had olive toned skin and brown hair yet used the fairest emoji. To me it became associated with people who creepily overvalue fair skin tones.

I think that if you’re already thinking about it this much, err towards yellow.
posted by seemoorglass at 10:50 AM on June 23, 2018

I'm white, and I used to use the "default" yellow emojis, but I overheard a non-white person saying they wished white people would use the white people emojis, because (a) own your whiteness and (b) quit implying that white is equivalent to default.

Pretty much the same for me - I used the yellow ones because they seemed universal and I didn’t really care, but then I read an article making the same points as above, so I switched to using light skin emoji. I use the second lightest one for hands (👍🏼👌🏼🤞🏼 etc), because it looks closest to my skin tone, and the lightest one (eg 🤷🏻‍♀️) if it includes hair beause I have dark hair.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:29 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

FWIW I don't care about white people using yellow vs pale emoji, but I give a hefty side-eye to white people who love to use POC in their gifs/black emoji (ie, the "digital blackface" concern).
posted by TwoStride at 11:44 AM on June 23, 2018

Thanks y'all. After reading all this, I think I'm going to continue using the emoji colors that look most like my actual skin (what I have been doing for the last while) and just accept that people may occasionally think I'm being racist about it even though that is the exact opposite of my intent. (This is presumably something that happens in real life as well and seems inevitable given how many white people are actively racist.) It seems like more people will take it as intended (and perhaps appreciate it, in a small way) than misread what I'm doing, and hopefully if they chance to interact with me more meaningfully they'll be reassured that it's not some covert white supremacy thing. Using emoji that are darker than me is not something that I had ever considered doing, for the reasons that folks have pointed to.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:11 PM on June 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

When I was setting up my work Slack account, I made it to my (white) skin tone without even thinking about it and everyone else was using the default. But I noticed my non-white co-workers soon changed theirs to the brown and black ones and honestly I thought it was kind of nice to see the diversity in our little Slack channel.

But in public, I do use the default emojis. I worry it would look weird to go out of the way to be like, "Hey, I'm white!" I fully accept I am overthinking this and I highly doubt anyone interprets it that way. I would do whatever you're comfortable with.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:43 PM on June 23, 2018

Unless it was for a forum/conversation/comment in which your race was particularly relevant, I would use the system default, and the system administrator should set the default to a nice shade of blue or some other color that is not generally used as a sign of one's race. Even if your picture is up there for all to see and judge racially, you shouldn't have to declare your race in an online forum (again, unless it was for a conversation and comment in which race was particularly relevant, in which case someone could say "black person approves" with a single character).

(That's all hypothetical for me, however. I never use emojis.)
posted by pracowity at 3:18 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Now here’s a wrench. Whenever the emoji shows hair, the lightest one is Asian and the skin colour matches the lightest one for all the emojis. So even though I’m closer to the second lightest in my actual skin colour, I usually use the lightest, except when I’m being lazy and use yellow. (But even then I sometimes purposely use yellow for Asian when trying to be funny.)

I was reading them as more icons for race rather than a colour matcher. Especially since among my Asian relatives there’s someone for all the colours. Throughout the year I can cover three.
posted by alusru at 7:23 PM on November 15, 2018

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