Near the end of my Wednesday morning blogging class, I was the white praying hands emoji. Over the weekend, in a conversation about HBO’s recently released Scientology expose, called Going Clear, I was the white thumbs up emoji. Last week, when a friend sent me screenshots of a conversation with a boy she was talking to, I was the white unamused face emoji. In reality, my face isn’t white; it’s only my emojis that were.
For the uninitiated, emojis are smiley faces that initially appeared in Japanese electronic messages (the word “emoji” literally translates to “picture character”), introduced to the United States through their inclusion in Apple’s iPhone operating system keyboard in 2011. These glorified emoticons transcend the simple winky faces of the AOL instant messaging chats of yesterday—Emojipedia, which lists the official emoji character names as determined by an international coalition, describes specific faces in surprising detail. On Wednesday, Apple released an update to its iPhone and iPad operating system that includes 300 new emojis, including human face emojis with, for the first time, a range of racially diverse skin tones.
Broadly, emojis take some of our most complex emotions and make them communicable, nonverbally translating them in ways that rival the expressions of our own faces. There’s “weary face” (everyone’s favorite for when you check the time and realize there’s an hour left in class), “cat face with wry smile,” “persevering face,” and even “confounding face.” Emojis can take on different subjective connotations within friend groups and communities. They communicate so many feelings, faces, and—when I choose the doughnut emoji over the lollipop—ideas, plans, and locations, all instantly discernible and reproducible.
These new additions—which, according to Time, include “same-sex families, a range of gadgets like the new Apple Watch and flags from 32 countries,” along with the expanded variety of skin colors—carry an especially important weight in conversations about visibility. Since their introduction to Apple’s iOS in 2011, emojis have reflected larger cultural shifts relating to language, the performance of gender, and cultural visibility, according to a 2014 feature in New York. There are anecdotal trends, like translating songs and speeches into emoji—renditions of Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” and R. Kelly’s hip-hop opera “Trapped in the Closet” are notable hits—but more importantly, emojis are the latest iterations of ageless linguistic phenomena. “Decoding pictures as part of communication has been at the root of written language since there was such a thing as written language,” Adam Sternbergh wrote in that New York feature. “Emoji are a secret code language made up of symbols that everyone already intuitively understands.” Like stop signs and the person in a wheelchair denote specific instructions, the praying hands (also called “person with folded hands”) emoji communicates that I am both “2 blessed 2 be stressed” and grateful to be listening to Drake (a rapper who has the praying hands emoji tattooed on one of his arms).
Like words, there are situations and emotions that not even a collection of emoji can describe: There’s no emoji to communicate deeply complex emotions like heartbreak, just as there’s not one for specific situations, like explaining the totally ignorant comment that freshman in your 8 a.m. class just made. Importantly, however, until Apple’s April 8 update, there wasn’t an emoji for having a family with two moms, nor was there an emoji for being a black woman who frowns. (As a black woman who frowns often, it’s important to me that I have this.) The fact that it’s taken approximately four years for Apple to create these diverse emojis reveals a lot about cultural visibility—namely, who does and doesn’t belong in which technological spaces. And even now, when this error is being rectified, there are still deficiencies: The new same-sex couples and parents are all of the same yellow-toned race, as are several other emoji faces.
I won’t pretend that emojis are everyone’s biggest problem, but they are indicative of some important ones. It took four years for us all to be able to communicate, in such a ubiquitous and youthful medium, that a white man can wear a turban, a black woman can be a bride, and emotions like pride, uncertainty, and joy aren’t unique to white faces. Visibility—simply the act of being seen and having your humanity recognized—in these smallest of ways are so important, but still unnecessarily require privilege that hasn’t been afforded to users of many races, sexualities, and ethnicities.