Lack of Representation in Emoticons

When MP mentioned her frustration at the lack of a black “thumbs-up” icon in an emoji program, this made me realize that the vast majority of electronic avatars depict whites. Given the high frequency in which I use emoticons on Facebook and through texting, I was shocked that I had not been aware of this before.

One of Facebook's few emoticon sets with exclusively black characters
One of Facebook’s few emoticon sets with exclusively black characters

Although African Americans comprise only about fourteen percent of the United State’s population, Caucasians are steadily becoming the minority in America (and as of 2013, white children under five are no longer the majority of this age group. Additionally, more and more people each year gain access to computers and smartphones, where emoticons are becoming increasingly common. In Facebook’s emoticons, very few portray black characters. While the majority of Facebook’s emojis depict cartoon-like animals, the humanistic emojis almost exclusively depict white figures. Cece, which exclusively shows black women, is currently Facebook’s only all-black set of emojis. The fact that Cece’s creator, Nneka Myers, is Canadian-born and resides in Toronto, suggests that she might not relate to many aspects of traditional African American culture (although American and Canadian culture are admittedly quite similar).

Complete collection of emojis on recent iPhones and Android phones
Complete collection of emojis on recent Apple and Android devices

On recent Apple and Android devices, dozens of emojis are available for free (and many come pre-programmed on new phones and tablets). While most of these emojis portray animals and inanimate objects, over 99% of all of the people and body parts represent Caucasian figures. The single emoticon depicting a man of color wears a white turban, suggesting his Muslim identity. As far more African Americans follow Christianity than Islam, many black users might not relate closely to this emoji.

Other American cultural groups certainly also struggle in underrepresentation in emojis. While about three percent of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, only one set of Facebook emojis relates to the LGTBQ community.

"Pride" set of emoticons on Facebook
“Pride” set of emoticons on Facebook

While Asians make up a mere 5% of the American population, they are fairly well represented in Facebook emojis, partly due to the fact that emoticons originated in Japan, where they first gained widespread popularity in 2010. These Asian roots explain the trends of many Asian figures and Chinese and Japanese writing in the images.

A Facebook set of emojis depicting an Asian girl
A Facebook set of emojis depicting an Asian girl
A Facebook set of emojis depicting various animals with Japanese writing
A Facebook set of emojis depicting various animals with Japanese writing

The African-based emoji company Oju Africa presented hope for the future when it released a set of emojis that not only take pride in black skin color but also embrace African heritage. Uganda-born Alpesh Patel, the CEO of Oju Africa, told Vice’s Motherboard, “Diversity is … about embracing the multiple cultures out there that have no digital representation.”

A set of African emojis downloadable in Apple and Android devices
A set of Afro-centric emojis downloadable in Apple and Android devices

What does it mean for large groups of people to be mostly left out of these representations? Why does it matter for certain ethnicities to not view themselves in electronic avatars?

0 thoughts on “Lack of Representation in Emoticons

  1. You have heard about the recent unicode update that allows for a range of skin tones for each emoticon depicting a person/body parts, and changes the default tone to a simpsoneque yellow?

  2. This subject just dawned on me the other day after months of using emoticons. I was searching for a black emoticon, I guess this means no black people are in the emoticon business? If not, we sure are missing out. I like using them, maybe I can suggest this idea to my more artistic friends.

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