Apple’s emojis recently came under fire again after an MTV article called the tech company out for not having any black emojis. Apple admitted to MTV that “there needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set,” and said they were working to make emojis more diverse.
While emojis may seem like a relatively trivial issue, more diverse representation could make a huge difference. “Everyone wants to see people like them,” Georgetown University psychology professor Sandra Calvert told ThinkProgress. “You learn about others and yourself by using these symbolic representations that we inhabit.”
Emojis have been around since the 1990s and first became popular among Japanese teenagers. But the symbols didn’t gain widespread popularity until Apple added them to its iOS native keyboard in 2011. The current emoji set includes dozens of smiley faces, numerous countries’ flags, and even recently added two same-sex couples. Only two emojis, however, represent people of color: A “man with a turban” and a “man with gua pi mao,” or special beanie cap.
Diversity is one way people look to see how valued they are in the world, said Calvert, who is also the director of Georgetown’s Children’s Digital Media Center in Washington, D.C. Without representation, it sends a message that a particular group of people doesn’t count.
Part of the reason Apple doesn’t have any black emoticons is because getting them approved takes time. It takes several years for Unicode Consortium, the non-profit responsible for standardizing symbols used across Web, to add or revise emojis to its database. And while the tech industry has long struggled with gender and racial diversity, the lack of emoji diversity is most attributable to companies and developers consistently leaving out minorities when launching products.
According to Calvert, emojis are used to embody self representation so people need a lot of options that go beyond ethnic and gender-based media stereotypes. Most people use emojis, a more expressive version of emoticons, and they’ve quickly become a new way to communicate. Symbols, such as the heart or a brunette woman primping her hair, are used hundreds of millions of times a day, according to Emoji Tracker, which tracks real-time emoji use on Twitter. But that popularity is negated by a poor reflection of who uses emojis. Overall, African-Americans are just as likely to use Twitter as their white counterparts, according to a recent Pew Research study. Nearly 40 percent of black Twitter users under 30 use Twitter compared to 28 percent of whites.
Emojis are not the only battleground where the fight for greater representation in online imagery is playing out. Facebook executive and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg teamed up with Getty Images to take on institutional sexism and racism in stock photos by creating a body of images that more accurately reflect everyday people. For example, stock images that frequently pop up in ads and feature working women with families often reinforce antiquated stereotypes and gender roles: A mom juggling her child and a laptop, fixing breakfast or wearing a suit and holding a briefcase. Sandberg’s and Getty’s project aims to break out of those images by showcasing people with all body types, ages and races.
Because people identify with the characters, form relationships with them, its important that emojis represent the full spectrum of emotion and people’s roles in society, Calvert said. Ultimately, you want emojis, not just in a range of races, but colors as well because they’re deeply tied to how people see the world and express themselves.