From Symbol to Skin

Why does my copper-complexioned friend from Saudi Arabia use pale emoji while my “white” friend uses dark-skinned emoji? Are we scared of the skin we wear?

Thumbs Up

I have owned an iPhone for one year. When I realized that on its shiny new screen, emoji would show up as colorful characters and not as empty rectangles, I had to consider introducing little faces and party hats into my digital vocabulary. When I noticed that you could change the skin tone of the tiny hands, I thought, Oh! That’s cool, the way six-year-old me looked at the American Girl doll catalog when they introduced dolls whose hair, eyes, and skin could be matched to my own.

Then, suddenly, discomfort rose in me as I realized that a light-skinned thumbs-up, a white fist, could look like something I never intended it to. I clicked the bright-yellow thumbs up; I resolved not to let my color send any wrong messages. I’m not the only one. Apparently the lightest emoji are underused.  It is “white” people who are most apt to hide behind “colorlessness.”

Quite a few people have suggested that for white people to use dark emoji is cultural appropriation, unless, perhaps, they are doing so in contexts where they are specifically backing up “people of color.” I find it equally disheartening to see people of darker complexions use lighter emoji, in that it is symptomatic of a reality in which light skin is associated with safety and wealth.

The United States, in particular, is grappling with what it means to be a multi-ethnic nation. We don’t know what to do with the histories we have inherited. I long for a world in which my ivory-skinned hands are not associated with the story of people who have stolen power and privilege from others.

I don’t think I can exclusively use the yellow emoji anymore. Today is the day I take my Anglo-Saxon-origin hands out of their bright rubber gloves. I am going to let the digital world see my pale thumbs. It is not my skin or your skin that is the problem. It is that we spend more time wondering what other people think of us than embracing our flesh-and-blood neighbors, in all the stories they wear.

Ephesians 6:12


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