Apple's finally updating its line of emoji characters with a diverse skin color palette, but some say the yellowish skin tone included in the pack raises some questions: Are they Asian stereotypes? Are they jaundiced? What's the deal?
The yellow color apparently isn't meant to be a skin tone option. It's a default emoji color that exists outside of the new skin tone color options. Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to confuse, and a lot of people find it offensive.
So here's how that happened.
At first, it may seem like the real answer has to do with standards created by the Unicode Consortium, the small group that sets rules for how special characters like emoji should display across different platforms. Unicode comes up with the emoji to begin with, but it doesn't make any choices about how emoji look on devices. The aesthetic of the faces and objects depends on how Apple's iOS platform, for example, combines suggested skin tones with emoji characters.
A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment on the updated iOS emoji.
A Unicode rep told The Huffington Post that the organization publishes only black-and-white images in its code charts. Anything beyond that is the work of a specific platform or software vendor.
In other words, Unicode might say the code "U+1F603" should correspond to "smiling face with open mouth," but the aesthetic of the final image is open to interpretation. For example, when emoji were enabled on Android Jelly Bean years ago, they looked like little black robots. On iOS devices, they look like round smiley faces, while on Google Hangouts they're a bit like gumdrops.
That's three different ways of looking at the very same expression:
So, Unicode itself isn't to blame for any supposed racial (or jaundiced) undertones in the new, diverse emoji that are about to roll out to users of Apple's iOS platform. Furthermore, Unicode's initial report on skin tone swatches for emoji helps clear things up a bit: The yellowish color isn't meant to be a skin tone at all. It's not included in the skin tone options provided by Unicode and appears to be intended to be used as a kind of default color.
Every emoji from Unicode has a corresponding code allowing them to be used across devices and platforms. To address the issue of diversity, Unicode created color swatches corresponding with five skin tones, which also have codes. These codes are meant to be paired with existing emoji. "U+1F3FF," for example, corresponds to Unicode's swatch for very dark skin.
The code for a color swatch can be paired with the code for certain emoji to create a combination of the two. Ideally, that works like this:
But if a system doesn't support combining the two, it might look like this: (A basic emoji placed next to the color swatch to communicate that the sender wanted to display a person with dark skin. Pretty weird.)
Finally, if color emoji aren't supported at all, you might get something like this:
What's really interesting is this: Unicode said back November that "[w]hen a human emoji is not immediately followed by a emoji modifier character, it should use a generic non-realistic skin tone -- such as that typically used for the smiley faces -- or a silhouette." And what color are the smiley faces used on iOS? Yellow, a color completely absent from the skin tone swatch scale that Unicode uses.
Check it out. The basic, round smiley emoji we're all familiar with has a yellow base:
Now consider the base color of the yellowish faces released in Apple's new iOS beta:
They're both essentially the same yellow. We found that each image contains #FBD043, for example, the HTML code for a certain shade that looks like this:
So, Apple probably isn't trying to be racist with its new emoji. Think of it more like LEGO people: Yellow means "generic" in this case.
Now where's the emoji for damage control?