Skin colour in emojis: the dilemma (solved?)

What to do about skin colour in emojis? There are no easy answers, but I think I got there…

My young son and his friends are gently amused by the way the parental generation uses emojis.

Apparently, we either use them too much, or too literally. When I send a smiley face emoji, I mean I am smiling. Out there in young-people-land, it’s not so simple.

Personally, I’m happy to keep on using emojis to express my feelings, directly and literally. What I have never been happy about is the issue of what colour to use when I pick a human-representative emoji (sometimes of course, the choice isn’t available; these things do vary from app to app and platform to platform).

Yes, indeed, I am about to venture into the territory of skin colour and its representation in the digital world.

I can’t be the only person, giving a thumbs up, to have hovered anxiously over the six options, ranging from yellow to pale white to very dark brown.

Anxiety in emoji land

I’ve observed that most of my black friends use the skin colour that matches their own; and that most of my white friends stick to the yellow. Some of my white friends, though, choose to pick a dark-skinned emoji.

Looking at that set of observations, I draw some conclusions:

  • Choosing a dark emoji to represent your dark skin makes complete sense, and I am glad the option is available.
  • Choosing a dark-skinned emoji when you are white-skinned means (I think) that you are performing an act of allyship: “actions, behaviours and practices that people can take to support, amplify, and advocate with others, especially individuals who don’t belong to the same social identities as themselves”.
  • And some people probably don’t know that you can choose different colours – not everyone is tech-savvy enough to dig that deep into a phone keyboard.
  • And some white people, including me, choose yellow because all the other options seem wrong somehow.

Why I’ve stuck with yellow

These are the anxieties:

  • If I pick a white hand, am I somehow signalling some kind of “white pride” agenda? I don’t want to do that.
  • If I pick a darker-skinned emoji, am I guilty of cultural appropriation? I do know that the pale-skinned people I know have thought this through and feel comfortable with their choice – but to me, it just doesn’t feel like it fits.

So what to do? I’ve hovered anxiously, often, and just stuck with supposedly neutral yellow.

I did some online research

But I’ve done a bit of Googling and established that the Simpson-esque yellow is not neutral at all. In the Simpsons, all the white characters are yellow, while the darker-skinned people are portrayed in various shades of brown. It seems universally accepted that yellow is understood to mean a representation of white skin.

So – if you choose a yellow thumbs-up, you might as well choose a white one?

Why I am going to pick white from now on

Two arguments resonated with me. The first was made by writer and trainer Peter Hilton who sums up the arguments well here, and concludes: “You should use the emoji skin tone modifier that most closely matches your skin’s actual colour. Bring yourself to online conversations.” (my emphasis)

The second argument from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager Abel Buko clinched the decision for me. Buko, talking about the use of emojis in the workplace, observes that for many black people using emoji skin colours at work is seen as “too political” and therefore inappropriate for an office environment. As Buko observes: “Our personal identities don’t cease to exist when we arrive at work, either in person or digitally. And as remote work continues to grow, our abilities to fully show up digitally are important.”

He concludes by saying; “Changing from yellow to one of the lighter skin colours (creates) space for people who haven’t seen themselves digitally to be able to do the same without standing out. It’s the same idea as normalizing putting your pronouns in your profiles or straight people also now saying ‘partner’.”

I’ve been using my pronouns for a while now, on exactly that basis. If people like me, with no overwhelming need to declare anything about my identity, just do these things, then it makes it “normal” for people in much more difficult circumstances.

Pale white it is then. Decision made. It won’t stop the science fiction lover in me wishing that I could choose green or purple though.

Main picture: Denis Cherkashin, Unsplash


Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management. 

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here.  

Comments are closed.