Racist emoji

30 August 2020

Unicode 1F595, more commonly known as the middle finger emoji.

Have you ever heard someone says something that sounded completely outrageous, and you turned around to see a smile on their face and heaved a sigh of relief?

Humans rely on a wide range of signals to communicate with each other, and most of these are non-verbal: What we say is modified by pitch and loudness of voice, body language, hand gestures, and facial expression.

Written communication has none of those signals, so letter writing was very formal and structured to avoid miscommunication:

"Dear so and so...

Our correspondence of xx date refers.

Yours sincerely..."

Then came email, formalities were tossed out of the window, and miscommunication became frequent. So, we adopted emoticons. These were combinations of characters that were meant to convey facial expressions, and first appeared in 1987. (This was the year my good friend Roman Cabanac was born, and the year of my first marriage, but I digress.)

"Emoticon" is a portmanteau word derived from "emotion" and "icon". Here are some examples:

:-) Smiling face
:-( Frowning face
;-) Wink

Fast forward 10 years to 1997, and Japanese developer Shigetaka Kurita unveiled emoji; single character glyphs designed to solve pretty much the same problems as did emoticons. Kurita noted that the function of emoji was to "add subtle emotional emphasis to a sentence in text".

(BTW, the word "emoji" is itself a portmanteau word from Japanese; combining "e" meaning "picture" or "drawing", and "moji" meaning "letter" or "character".)

I think emoji are brilliant because they transcend language barriers in a way that emoticons cannot in a world dominated by derivatives of the Greek alphabet. My signature emoji is the smiling face with a halo, πŸ˜‡.

But now we get to theΒ 21st century.Β A draft document to define the skin colour to be used for emoji β€” "for the representation of human diversity" β€” was submitted in August 2014 by Mark Davis of Google and Peter Edberg of Apple Inc.

Less than a year later on June 2015, this was adopted and began showing up on our phones.Β 

I unconsciously went along with this, dutifully switching my emoji from dark brown in summer πŸ‘πŸΏ to light brown in winter πŸ‘πŸ½, until a friend of mine asked me, "why do we do this?"

He's quite correct. Adding a racial layer to emoji does not enhance communication, but does entrench division. I do not give a f... what your race is; I do want to know your intent.

And that's why I've stopped using racist emoji. I now only use the original bright yellow introduced by Kurita.

Arigato Gozaimasu.

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