Non-White Emoji Are Finally Coming

People of color looking to append a few emoji to their text messages have always had a bit of a problem. They could choose from a range of insects, or decide whether to include a toothed whale or one of the baleen variety. But there was no option to send a character whose skin looked like theirs. That is finally changing. Earlier this week a proposal was circulated to change the standard that guides the shape of the picture alphabets. The new plan for emoji would default to a nonrealistic skin color and include pieces of code that could modify characters with five additional options for skin tone.

The lack of dark-skinned emoji characters has been a sore point for months, with everyone from Questlove, to Miley Cyrus, to Apple’s PR department saying that it was time to break the color barrier. A few developers have made their own racially diverse emoji alphabets. But this week’s proposal would change the standard used by Google’s and Apple’s smartphone software, which as of now features almost exclusively white emoji.

The fate of cutesy smartphone communications is in the hands of the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization that sets global standards for the characters. The initial lack of diversity came from the organization’s decision simply to adapt the characters that had already become popular in Japan. “It’s a sequence of accidents that led to the particular images we have now,” says Mark Davis, the head of the Unicode Consortium and one of the authors of the proposal to change them. “What we are recommending is that font developers use an unreal color for the basic characters, like the Simpsons orange, or happy-face orange. Then they can use these new characters—these new emoji modifiers—to add the skin tone.”

Davis says that the current proposal will be reviewed for several months before it is expected to be added to the new version of the standard next June. From that point, it would be up to companies such as Apple and Google to adopt the new version.

Racial diversity isn’t the only gap in the emoji language, says Davis. The consortium also wants to address other shortcomings, including the lack of symbols related to cricket, one of the world’s most popular sports. But it warns that there’s a limit to how far it plans to go.

“Of course, there are many other types of diversity in human appearance besides different skin tones: different hair styles and color, use of eyeglasses, various kinds of facial hair, different body shapes, different headwear, and so on,” writes Davis in the proposal. “It is beyond the scope of Unicode to provide an encoding-based mechanism for representing every aspect of human appearance diversity that emoji users might want to indicate.”

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