Emojis just took another big step towards racial inclusivity. Following the Unicode Standard’s addition of emoji skintones back in November, MacRumors says that Apple has become the first major tech company to actually build racially diverse emoji into the latest beta of its OS X Yosemite operating system.
The implementation is still buggy and incomplete — it comes as part of a developers-only beta of Apple’s desktop operating system, which can take months to roll out to a general audience — but it’s a start.
In its current form, Apple is incorporating racially-diverse emoji through OS X’s default Character Palette, allowing you to click on a dropdown next to each emoji to specify race options. Right now, it’s all placeholder graphics, and you can’t see the actual skin color change, but text strings indicate that Apple eventually intends on replacing these placeholders with emoji race variations. It’s coming.
As part of its 8.0 standard, the Unicode Consortium imagines this working a little differently. It wants to implement the new emojis by selecting, say, a smiley emoji and a color swatch emoji right next to each other would automatically change the emoji’s skin tone. In addition, they are recommending that all Unicode members change the coloring of their default ‘human’ emoji to have a more cartoonish, almost Simpsons-like skin tone, instead of defaulting to Caucasian, as most emoji have previously done.
Why have racially diverse emoji taken so long? Simple: the controversy took the Unicode Consortium by surprise. A behind-the-scenes commission that devotes itself to the unglamorous task of standardizing how characters are displayed across platforms, as far as Unicode was concerned, an emoji is just another character, like a question mark or an exclamation point.
Sure, the Unicode Consortium’s business is to make sure there’s a technological standard so that it will display on as many devices as possible. But the Unicode Consortium doesn’t design that character, and when it comes to emoji, it has historically worried about the color of a smiley about as much as it worries about the color of an ampersand or an umlaut. That is, not at all.
From a tech perspective, this is actually a reasonable position. All that the Unicode Consortium does is make sure that its members know that when a device receives a computer string like $insert_smiley that a smiley actually displays. What that smiley actually looks like is up to device makers: it can be white, black, Simpsons yellow, green, purple, or anything in between.
But from a humanist position, that’s not a position the Unicode Consortium can take, because ultimately, its goal is to be inclusive by creating a shared, universal language of symbols every computer can display. And the lack of racially diverse emoji was contradiction that mission by making people feel excluded.
Apple’s move to introduce racially-diverse emoji into OS X will presumably be followed by adding the capacity to iOS later this year. Curiously, Apple doesn’t seem to have replaced the default skin tones of emoji with Unicode’s recommended “Simpsons yellow” color, yet, which might be the next big emoji controversy, if not remedied. But seeing as this is only a beta, we probably still have some time before Miley Cyrus tweets “Why does Apple default to Caucasian emoji?”.
For more information on the Unicode Consortium and the history of emoji, check out our previous piece, Where Do Emoji Come From?