With expressions ranging from happy to sad to ironic, emoticons serve as a kind of virtual extension of the self on online messaging platforms. As a result, many rejoiced when Apple decided to import Japan’s Emoji keyboard back in 2011, eliminating the need for app extensions. Yet something was still missing. “Where’s the diversity?”asked everyone from Tahj Mowry to Miley Cyrus, addressing the notable lack of non-white cartoon faces.
It looks like Apple has been listening closely to these concerns, with plans to implement a more racially and socially diverse set of emoji for iOS 8.3 later this year. Problem solved? Not quite. As Apple unveils its most recent developer betas, a furor has broken out in China regarding what some regard as a prejudiced depiction of Asians. While one can certainly make a case for this position, Apple claims the startlingly yellow emoji at the heart of the uproar doesn’t depict a normal human face at all.
The controversy began with the series of emoji shown above. At first glance, it seems Apple’s aim with these new emoji is to provide a greater range of skin tones, thereby promoting one aspect of diversity. This then leads to the inevitable question of whether the emoji are also intended as a visualization of race.
Many Chinese citizens seem to think the emoji do, in fact, depict a variety of races, rather than a mere progression of skin tones. Therefore, they argue, the yellow face furthest to the left cannot be construed as anything but Apple’s idea of an Asian face. At this point, the problem becomes obvious. Comments on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform, included the following:
“That emoji is seriously yellow. How does a person get to be that kind of color?”
“That can’t be an Asian person… I’ve never seen anyone so yellow in my life.”
“Has anyone ever actually seen someone who shade of yellow? I’d be worried they were ill.”
However, the ultra-yellow emoji might not be showing a natural skin color at all, Asian or otherwise.
As it happens, the developer of the emoji is not Apple itself, but rather Unicode Consortium, which aims to promote a greater range of skin tones in 2015. In a document on the subject, they write:
“Five symbol modifier characters that provide for a range of skin tones for human emoji are planned for Unicode Version 8.0 (scheduled for mid-2015). These characters are based on the six tones of the Fitzpatrick scale, a recognized standard for dermatology… The exact shades may vary between implementations.”
This is followed by a graphic showing the emoji modifiers.
You can see how the sample colors on the left side align with those of five emoji in the upcoming release. So what about the bright yellow face? The reason it is absent from this chart is because the yellow tone is, as Ritchie noted, the default color. Gradations in skin tone are achieved by adding a color modifier to the default, as seen below:
In light of this information, Apple’s explanation suddenly becomes much more plausible. Even so, it might be too late to reverse the damage. Sales of last year’s iPhone were higher in China than they were in America, making the former a vital market for Apple–which must now surely be concerned about its image among Chinese consumers. Ultimately they will decide with their wallets whether or not to give Apple the benefit of the doubt.