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Choosing the skin tone of an emoji is more complex than we might think

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

So a lot of times I find myself texting a friend...

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KHALID: ...Or messaging a co-worker...

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KHALID: ...And I want to reply with a simple thumbs up emoji.

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KHALID: But it's not that simple because there's not just one thumbs up option. There's the "Simpsons" yellow version and then five different skin tone options.

SARAI COLE: I use the brown one that matches me. I have some friends who use the brown ones, too, but they are not brown themselves. This confuses me.

KHALID: That's Sarai Cole from Berlin, Germany. She's Black and originally from California. She says she's not offended when a non-brown friend uses a brown emoji, but would like to understand why.

I, too, have long been curious and a bit confused by the race politics of emojis. I posted about it on Twitter this week where I learned clearly this was not an isolated obsession.

HEATH RACELA: This is Heath Racela in Littleton, Mass. I am three-quarters white, but I'm also a quarter Filipino.

KHALID: Racela says he usually goes with the yellow emoji because it does it represent any specific ethnicity or skin tone.

RACELA: I present is very pale, very light skinned, and if I use the white emoji, I feel like I'm betraying the part of myself that's Filipino. But if I use a darker color emoji, which maybe more closely matches what I see when I look at my whole family, it's not what the world sees, and people tend to judge that.

KHALID: Laura Johnson from Austin, Texas, says she used to think the yellow emoji was neutral, but then she started reading a book that made her rethink that view.

LAURA JOHNSON: In particular, Ijeoma Oluo and her fabulous book, "So You Want To Talk About Race" - she made me realize that our culture tends to default to whiteness, and that yellow emoji is white.

KHALID: For other people, the choice depends on where the messaging is happening and who they're messaging with. Here's Jennifer Epperson from Houston. She identifies as Black.

JENNIFER EPPERSON: I use the default emoji, the yellow-toned one for professional settings, and then I use the dark brown emoji for friends and family. I just don't have the emotional capacity to unpack race relations in the professional setting.

KHALID: Skin-toned emojis first rolled out in 2015, so it's been a while. But since then, a seemingly easy choice has become somewhat fraught.

To help us understand, we've brought in Zara Rahman. She's a writer and researcher based in Berlin. Welcome to the show.

ZARA RAHMAN: Hi. Thank you for having me.

KHALID: So Zara, you wrote an article on all of this a few years back. And I want to begin with a somewhat basic question, which is who tends to use skin-toned emojis more? What did the research that you found say?

RAHMAN: I found that there was research to show that the lightest skin tone was actually used the least, even though the white Twitter users outnumber Black Twitter users 4 to 1. And yeah people - I guess in my personal research, I found that white people tended to use the yellow emoji much more than people who were visibly people of color.

KHALID: We heard from people earlier opting for the yellow one to not get race involved for some people or do not maybe promote their whiteness. But it seems like there is an argument from some people against using the yellow default. And I'm, I will say, particularly curious about this because I am a frequent user of the Bart Simpson yellow.

RAHMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, no, that's so interesting. I mean, if we look at "The Simpsons," I think "The Simpsons" does kind of influence a lot of people's use of the yellow emoji. On "The Simpsons," there were yellow people, and there were brown people, and there were Black people.

KHALID: Ah.

RAHMAN: So I think for many people, the "Simpsons" yellow signifies white, even if it's actually not.

KHALID: I had actually (ph) thought of that. Yeah. That's interesting.

RAHMAN: Yeah, so - and I think it - you know, I think one of the callers also mentioned this, there is this default to thinking about whiteness as almost raceless in many ways. So the reason that I find this particularly interesting is because people are confronted with having to make their race explicit, which I mean, I completely hear some people are just exhausted of having to do that. Many people of color have to do that every day and are confronted with their race every day. But for many white people, they've been able to, let's say, ignore it or - whether that's subconsciously or consciously, their whole lives.

KHALID: Zara, it does feel like there's not necessarily one clear-cut answer for everyone. You know, in some of the Twitter responses, even I heard from people like their emoji use could be different depending on the season. I have two children whose skin color is not the same. I don't know that these are particularly easy questions for people to wrestle with, which is maybe candidly why sometimes I've just opted for the yellow. So how do you recommend that people handle these choices?

RAHMAN: Oh, no. I mean, I completely agree with you that there's no clear-cut answer. People that I spoke to, for example, mixed-race people or white-passing people of color in particular really struggle because as one of the callers mentioned, not wanting to kind of ignore their white privilege but not wanting to deny the fact that they are people of color.

Yeah, I think context matters hugely - who you are, what kind of context you're writing in or where you're using it. The interesting thing about my work has been that many, many - I've had many white people read the article and then as a result, start to use the white emoji as a way of acknowledging that they see - they know that they're white.

KHALID: That is Zara Rahman. She's a writer and researcher based in Berlin. Thanks for joining us.

RAHMAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

KHALID: And if you have more thoughts on this topic, you can keep the conversation going. Send us a tweet @npratc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.