#10: Should white people use white skin tone emojis?

A vinyl record being played

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a cis white man in the U.S., and I have a leadership role at a tech company that uses Slack for communication and has many employees from marginalized groups.

Slack has a default “skin tone” for emojis, which is a cartoon-y yellow by default but can be set to another skin tone. Most of the people of color in our company have set their emoji skin tone to reflect their own appearance. A few white employees have set their skin tone to reflect their own skin tone. Most white people here have left the default yellow emoji skin tone.

Should I change from the default? And what happens when someone of Skin Tone #whatever posts a reaction emoji, and you click to second the reaction? Or when there’s one white-skin wave and one brown-skin wave reaction already, how do you add your reaction?

—Ruminating on Reactji

Can I say that I love that Slack and the Unicode Consortium have created a situation in which millions of white people are forced to think about their race at work sometimes? People who aren’t part of the dominant race or ethnic group (in the U.S., this is people of color) have to consciously think about their race or ethnic group all of the time. But if you haven’t been forced to think about it a lot, it can be a major *record scratch* moment on the rare occasions that it happens. Race and ethnicity vary a lot depending on culture and location, so I’ll write the rest of the column specifically about white people in the U.S. and what emojis they should use. The answers are probably different for other parts of the world, but you should be able to use similar principles to help figure out the answer.

What do different skin tone emojis mean?

All right, you’re a white person using Slack at work and now you have to choose: do you use a yellow emoji or a paler skin tone emoji or a skin tone emoji that doesn’t match your skin? Part of the problem is that you’re not even sure what each emoji is saying. Like, does a white person using the paler skin tone emojis mean “I am a white person who is aware of their racial privilege?” or does it mean “I am a white supremacist?” If there’s already a darker skin tone reaction emoji than your skin, is starting a different skin tone reaction emoji saying “I am aware and respectful of race and how it affects people,” or is it saying “I refuse to associate myself with your inferior race?” If a white person uses the “default” yellow emoji, is that just reinforcing the idea that whiteness is the default? And sometimes a skin tone emoji simply means “I once used an emoji with that skin tone and now it always uses that skin tone emoji and I don’t know how to change it back.”

It’s all so complicated! And you don’t know how other people will react, and you’re not sure what is the safest thing to do, but you have to choose something and you have to choose quickly and it’s stressful. My first recommendation is to stop and appreciate for a moment, “Oh, I am now experiencing a tiny sliver of the stress and mental load that people of color in the U.S. experience all day, every day. Wow, that’s a lot.” People of color also have to make a decision about which emoji skin tone to use AND deal with police brutality, Model Minority stereotypes, racial wealth gaps, etc. As a first step, take the discomfort you are feeling about potentially being perceived as racist and use it to develop compassion for people who are experiencing racism itself.

Avoiding appropriation

Let’s get the easy question out of the way first: in most cases, white people shouldn’t use skin tone emojis darker than their own skin (including adding to an existing reaction emoji). One thing I hear consistently when I listen to people of color is that, for many of them, it usually feels bad and weird when white people use darker skin tone emojis. To me, this looks like appropriation: deliberately adopting characteristics of a marginalized group you aren’t part of, but only when convenient or advantageous to you. If you’re using a darker skin tone emoji because it looks better, or you want to associate yourself with coolness, or show people that you are a good person, then that’s definitely appropriation. For more on why appropriation is so harmful, read Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal, in which Oluo demonstrates the shallowness of Dolezal’s understanding of the Black people whose identities and culture she is appropriating.

I can think of exceptions for when a white person using a darker skin emoji makes sense (perhaps when representing people other than themselves, or as one of many different skin tone emojis intended to represent a racially diverse group of people). A useful guideline for white people is: don’t use darker skin tone emoji as a short-hand for “Look how ‘woke’ I am.” (And if your software got stuck with the wrong default skin tone for emojis, take the time to figure out how to reset it.)

White supremacy: more than a skin tone emoji

What about white people using a skin tone emoji that matches their skin tone? Many people of color are excited about getting to use an emoji with a skin tone that looks like theirs and consider using skin tone emojis as a form of pride in their race or ethnicity—does that mean white people using it are also trying to communicate pride in their race, or “white pride?” In the U.S., “white pride” is racist because society as a whole already reinforces and supports whiteness at the expense of other racial and ethnic groups, so the last thing we need is to celebrate whiteness more.

Overall, the consensus seems to be that unless you are indicating in some other way that you’re a white supremacist, such as using white supremacist code words or hate symbols, using paler skin tone emojis doesn’t make people think that you are a white supremacist.

Whiteness as the default

The Simpsons dolls
CC BY Torsten Schulz https://flic.kr/p/fZxPnA

What about the cartoon yellow skin tone emojis? Are they really skin tone neutral, or is the “default” actually whiteness in disguise? In The Simpsons cartoon, the white characters have yellow skin, but the characters with darker skin are drawn with human skin colors. In a white supremacist society, whiteness is the default, and this goes for cartoon characters as well, even when the default is technically yellow. One reason that many people with darker skin tones were so excited to have and use skin tone emoji was that they didn’t feel included in or represented in the cartoon yellow emoji default—and they were right. While everyone can use the default yellow emoji, feeling like it unquestionably represents and includes you is one element of white privilege.

In summary, if you are a white person, there is no skin tone emoji choice that clearly says, “I am a white person who is aware of and fighting against racism.” People with privilege often want some kind of way to say, “I’m not like all the bad people who look just like me, I’m one of the good ones.” The reality is that we aren’t “good people,” we are “people who do things, sometimes good, sometimes bad.” There’s no way to preemptively prove to the people around you that you aren’t racist; all you can do is choose the action that fights racism more often. Whenever you feel the urge to prove that you aren’t racist, take time to appreciate what it feels like to grapple with the impact of systemic racism on a personal level and to be unable to control how other people perceive you—and then focus on actions you can take to fight racism.

Which skin tone emoji to use?

Which skin tone emoji should a white person use? Either one that matches your actual skin tone, or the yellow one, either will do. It doesn’t matter that much; what matters is learning about and becoming comfortable with talking about your race, systemic racism, and how it benefits you. (If you’re not a white person and want advice on what skin tone emoji to use, Zara Rahman wrote about how some people of color decide which emoji skin tones to use, including a discussion of colorism, the societal preference for lighter skin tones.) Whichever emoji you choose, what’s really important is to channel your discomfort about emoji choice into concrete action to end racial injustice in other ways.

Ally skill: Practice acknowledging your privilege

People are often aware of and comfortable talking about the ways in which they are marginalized by society, but it can be really hard and challenging to say, “I have this privilege, and because of that privilege, society grants me unearned advantages that make my life easier.” If you feel uncomfortable acknowledging or talking about your privilege, spend some time getting comfortable doing that. For example, if you’re a white person in the U.S. and you feel uncomfortable describing yourself as white or talking about the ways that whiteness benefits you, you might read “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo or “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, and then talk to some friends about what you read. You can also watch videos, or take a class, or whatever else works for you; what’s important is that you practice saying the actual words. Once you know that you can handle a conversation about racism, it becomes easier to think about and make decisions about issues related to racism.

Featured image CC BY-ND by Anton https://flic.kr/p/4jkoN2

3 thoughts on “#10: Should white people use white skin tone emojis?

  1. A small correction: While the cartoon emoji faces have always been yellow, the characters that now have skin tone options were all originally white. The yellow default option was only added when the ability to change the skin tone was added.

    You can see the originals here: https://emojipedia.org/apple/iphone-os-2.2/

    So, where it says “One reason that many people with darker skin tones were so excited to have and use skin tone emoji was that they didn’t feel included in or represented in the cartoon yellow emoji default—and they were right.” in fact it was even worse, before there were options the only option was white.


  2. Overall a great article but I disagree with recommending white authors (Robin DiAngelo) as resources about white supremacy, white privilege, racism, and the multiplicity of issues that come along with these white-designed issues. If white folks continue to perpetuate this notion that they are authorities or experts on issues they directly benefit from, they continue to perpetuate the problem of white privilege and white supremacy. White folks are not and will never be experts on anti-racism, so please stop using them to speak for us. To understand the experience of the marginalized and how to bring about change as an ally, advocate, society, and world, BIPOC voices, and our voices only must be centered and prioritized.


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