Apple’s new release of iOS 8.3 beta and OS X 10.10.3 beta for testers includes a long-awaited emoji update, with new, racially diverse humanoid emoji. In the emoji selection box or keyboard, holding down on an emoji — similar to how one might press a letter to get a version with an accent — opens a selection box that enables one to select between five different skin color modifiers. These five skin color modifiers include four tan and brown shades that are darker than the pale skin color of the majority of humanoid emoji in previous versions of iOS and OSX. The strange sixth skin color, a saturated yellow color interpreted as Apple’s attempt at an Asian emoji coloring has, however, elicited anger, confusion, and disappointment.
For some, the bright hue recalls “yellowface” and a history of caricatured portrayals of Asians that continues to this day. For them the new emoji, rather than encouraging diversity comes off as racist. Others couldn’t help but see the color’s resemblance to that of the characters on The Simpsons.
According to Unicode, the international coding standard that ensures symbols and letters appear uniformly across different devices, the new default yellow-toned emoji are actually supposed to represent ethnically neutral or generic persons. The draft of Unicode 8.0 standards reads:
The Unicode emoji characters for people and body parts are meant to be generic, yet following the precedents set by the original Japanese carrier images, they are often shown with a light skin tone instead of a more generic (inhuman) appearance, such as a yellow/orange color or a silhouette.
Yellow, in fact, has historically been the base color for emoticons. The ubiquitous yellow smiley face was first deployed by artist Harvey Bell in 1963 to boost company morale and today all non-humanoid smileys on Apple phones and computers and Android phones — those without hair and with more simplistic features like “winking face” and “sleeping face” — have yellow “skin.” The yellow emoji, the Washington Post quips, is the “post-racial character you can whip out when you don’t feel like getting into the subtleties of your emoji’s identity.”
Despite Unicode’s purportedly innocent intentions, we shouldn’t ignore the reactions that the new yellow humanoid emoji have provoked among Asians and other emoji enthusiasts, especially since emoji are so embedded in the fabric of everyday communication. The yellow hue may be racially neutral when employed for a simple smiley icon with two round eyes and a mouth, but when applied to a more humanoid face — especially within the context of Unicode’s attempt to reflect human diversity — the yellow immediately transforms into a garish color that is difficult to disassociate from racist caricatures and yellowface.