Excuse me, why are you using the black thumbs up emoji if you are, in fact, quite white?

In April 2015, the newest Apple iPhone operating system became “diverse.” And honestly, this development revealed some underlying racial questions for me.

Emojis aren’t a new concept. At this point, they’re something any person with a smartphone is used to. They’re everywhere, and no one gives them a second thought. However, they are making a difference in the way we think and react.

In 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries pronounced the crying laughing emoji as their word of the year.

Always recently released an ad emphasizing the inherent sexism of “female” emojis.

According to a new study published by a University of Minnesota, Twin Cities research lab called GroupLens, people interpret emojis very differently across different platforms, such as the Android or Apple systems. They look very different, and because of this, miscommunication of emotions occurs.  The fact that this was researched implies one very key fact: Emojis are a valid medium of communication.

A 2014 study published in the journal Social Neuroscience revealed that people looking at a smiley face emoji react to it as if it is a human face smiling.

These are all signs that those little symbols are making a big impact.

Emojis are perhaps the most relevant and universal facet of digital communication today. To dismiss the influences of them is to ignore a medium that is encountered everywhere online. According to SwiftKey, a keyboard app company, 74 percent of Americans use emojis every single day.

I’ve been wanting to connect emojis and race in writing for a while now after multiple conversations about this issue with people I deeply respect and who I think have an even greater foothold and understanding in the flux of racial conversation than I do.

The way we use social media or interpersonal messages reflects our attitudes on race and identity. Sure, maybe you “didn’t really think” when you pressed down on the emoji and slid four over to the second-to-darkest skin option, but why did you do it in the first place?

Stop to ask yourself: Is there meaning to the fact that the whiter options are more accessible? Was it that hard to just pick one that matched your own hand?

Maybe these individuals thought that turning the thumbs up or praise hands black made them more “ghetto.” Now they have some sort of “street cred,” because those hands resemble the people they think are on or of “the street.”

Now your fist bump is more “gangsta” and your praise hands resemble some woman in a gospel church, like this GIF.






Maybe you just thought it was funny. side eye

The other topic that has come up in discussion is the simple usage of yellow emoji. Maybe you just never switched from the default. As in, once a beautiful digital yellow, always yellow. You just can’t teach an old emoji user new tricks.

I’ve talked to people about this, and for some, their mindset is simple:

“Oh, I just never selected a flesh-colored one.”

Hmm, okay, understandable.

For others though, I’ve heard: “It’s just easier,” a way of avoiding some sort of racial discussion or confrontation.

Stop to ask yourself: Is it awkward when you’re having a text conversation with someone and because they have a different skin tone, their emoji are a different shade? Is this “aggressive?”

I heard of someone who once set their emojis to match their skin tone, then after the summer of 2015 changed it back to generic yellow.

That very summer, Black Lives Matter began to publicly challenge political leaders, a social movement that had been stirring since 2013 with the creation of its titular hashtag following George Zimmerman’s acquittal after shooting black teen Trayvon Martin.

Maybe shying away from acknowledging each other’s skin tone via texting and tweeting leads to a larger, societally pervasive ignorance of what comes with our skin colors.

Discussions about racial prejudice and inequality begin on social media, whether we like it or not, because news is online now.

The backlash of #alllivesmatter on Twitter sparked important conversations about what racism and privilege entails.

Stop to ask yourself:  Why were so many people offended that Beyoncé, a black woman (surprise!) wrote a song about the beauty and challenge of blackness?

If you were bothered by the hauntingly beautiful shot of a black boy dancing in front of police officers and the juxtaposition of their uniform surrender in response to his freedom of expression:

boy formation

praise handspraise handspraise handspraise hands

If that was “too pro-black,” why do you feel comfortable co-opting this blackfistbump or this thumbs up black? , especially as a joke?

I don’t have all the answers to the hypothetical questions I’ve offered up. I just think it’s too easy to write off these seemingly small issues. If we start with everyday exchanges, maybe we can begin tackling white privilege and racism. Maybe we can radically change the way we perceive each other and admit our lack of knowledge. Maybe we can work to stimulate more intelligent and compassionate racial conversation. Maybe an emoji is worth a thousand words.



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