Multicultural emojis a gray area for Apple developers

In response to the nationwide push for diversity acceptance, Apple announced plans to develop multicultural emojis. However, this push could place emoticons in hot water because of possible public misuse.

At first, the plans seem harmless and directly support the message of many who seek racial tolerance. With the emoji keyboard found on Apple products that dominate society, this appears to be a huge step forward.

“If you look at Apple’s emoji keyboard, what do you see? Two different camels. A smiling turd. Every phase of the moon. But of the more than 800 emojis, the only two resembling people of color are a guy who looks vaguely Asian and another in a turban,” Christina Chaey of Fast Company reported.

However, in considering my own use of emojis, I don’t pick an icon based on the race, but rather the emotion and the action it portrays. Psychologically, humans can inherently recognize six emotions, regardless of skin color.

If the primary use of emojis is to convey emotions, why must a race be paired at all? If happiness can be expressed through the different smiley faces currently offered, changing the color of the face seems unnecessary.

However, many, including Apple, don’t feel this way:

“There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard,” Katie Cotton, the company’s vice president of worldwide corporate communications, told MTV.

The images have to follow a specific code, the Unicode Consortium, so they can be translated across various platforms, limiting their details. Because of these limitations, depictions of different ethnicities could become offensive or insensitively stereotypical.

Unfortunately, not all individuals use emojis properly now. Providing the option of various races can allow this freedom to get abused quickly. With basic images, what if this development hurts feelings more than it helps diversity?

“Recently, the debate over whether emoji are racist and if technology is truly secular have been doing their rounds,” Alnoor Peermohamed of Tech Tree said. “Including a more diverse set of emoticons may be a small step towards making technology unbiased, but goes a long way in creating a society of equals.”

Celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and others are also pushing for a more cultural emoji keyboard, seeing this as a step forward in breaking down prejudice barriers. However, Apple must proceed with caution. Multicultural emojis could encourage racism just as much as they could encourage tolerance.

“But the campaign for more diverse emojis has been raging for almost two years now, and includes proponents like Miley Cyrus,” Lily Newman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said. “And if you don’t care about emojis, you can just support the issue on principle.”

The topic of race is a sensitive one. While the movement to end discrimination continuously picks up speed, Apple has an innovative concept for the fight on intolerance. But the question of the execution of widely accepted emojis and the appropriate pubic usage is still up in the air.

Reach the columnist at rsmouse@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @BeccaSmouse