Watch: How Do Black People ‘Emoji’?

Unicode, the consortium responsible for creating new emojis, has released hundreds of new emojis, including a genie, breastfeeding, a woman in a head scarf—the works. If you use a humanlike emoji, like the thumbs-up, then you have to choose one of six skin tones. But how do black people choose the skin tones of their emojis?


“I think for people of color, there’s been such a history where there’s been this force to downplay—this idea of colorblindness—as kind of an experiment that basically failed,” says Richard D. Harvey, associate professor of psychology at St. Louis University. “And I think, given that, there’s a greater sense of wanting to represent, and affirm blackness.”

In honor of the Unicode release and texting’s 25th birthday, The Root went to the streets of New York City to ask actual black people how they “emoji.”

Watch the video above.

Afro-Cuban woman that was born and branded in New York. When León isn't actually creating cool videos, she's thinking of cool videos that she can create.



Emoji were first introduced by a Japanese phone maker to get ahead of its competitors. The first adoption outside Japan was by Apple to get a shot at the Japanese market. There was a limited set of emoji because they had to be compatible with the Japanese. It was only later that other developers were motivated to try to expand emoji and, with it, their inclusion into the uni-code data set. To be included requires a certain amount of politicking because there aren’t that many workers on the uni-code data set and uni-code was originally created to encode existing languages, not create new ones. Still, once humans started using them, emoji ‘existed.’

Worse, the emoji aren’t fixed-image graphics. The poo character you add on your phone can be an entirely different image on the phone of the recipient. The same is true of any text message - the font you choose is not downloaded along with the message. Some applications may send hints as to which font to use, but uni-code captures what the character is, not what glyph it uses to depict it. In fact, even on the same device, the glyph can change:

The color is handled like this: “Human emoji that are not followed by one of these five modifiers should be displayed in a generic, non-realistic skin tone, such as bright yellow (■), blue (■), or gray (■)“ (The colors do not paste from the article.)

Other appearance and color management is dependent on the software implementation. “The exact appearance of emoji is not prescribed but varies between fonts, in the same way that normal typefaces can display letters differently. For example, the Apple Color Emoji typeface is proprietary to Apple, and can only be used on Apple devices (without additional hacking).”

Welcome to the rabbit hole - where emoji live and breathe:

(ETA - “Uni-code” to distinguish against ASCII and EBCDIC, the original encodings. Hyphenated because, for me, Uni-code is a recent development.)