Canada

Avoiding cultural appropriation in the digital age

Love them or hate them, emojis are becoming an everyday method of communication for millions of people. But with the option to choose different skin tones, the public seems divided on whether it’s appropriate to choose a skin tone different from your own.

"I know there are some out there that feel it's a form of digital blackface"

Emojis displayed on smart phone screens. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Love them or hate them, emojis are becoming an everyday method of communication for millions of people. Users now have the option to choose different skin tones for many of their favourite digital gestures. But should people always stick to the colour that most closely resembles their own?

The idea of cultural appropriation or "digital blackface" isn't restricted to emojis.This debate also includes who is allowed to use GIFs featuring people of a colour different than their own.

"We don't have a proper understanding of what are the norms to occupy that space when utilizing emojis in that social context," says Irfan Chaudhry, director of MacEwan University's Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity. "I know there are some out there that feel it's a form of digital blackface. I'm not sure if I can go that far yet because I think it goes back to the context of how it's being utilized."

Should people stick to their skin tone?

Out on the street, it's easy to find white people who admit to using emojis with darker skin tones, saying "it doesn't matter" what skin tone you use because switching it up can be fun.

Kody Wilson is a frequent phone user who says he uses different emoji skin tones to signal his appreciation for diversity.

"You know, we try to be multicultural and open-minded. If you're looking at a thumbs-up, you shouldn't be looking at what colour it is. It all has the same message, whether it's black, brown or white. I try not to whitewash my emojis, so I specifically make a few different."

Darren Moande says he's not comfortable with people playing around with race—even if it's just a digital thumbs-up sign. (Blair Sanderson / CBC)

While some people see emoji skin tones as interchangeable, others do not. Darren Moande is a black teenager who says he's not comfortable with people playing around with race—even if it's just a digital thumbs-up.

"I feel like it's not cool, actually. You know, it's really sensitive to talk about anything racial...To use anything racial, or ever gender, or anything else. You just have to be really sensitive about it, so just don't use it."

Darker tones used at a disproportionately higher rate

It's an issue that's slowly getting attention in the halls of academia. Mike Smit is a professor at Dalhousie University's School of Information Management who specializes in emerging technologies.

"Since this ability to change the skin tone of the emojis that we're using in 2015, this keeps coming up as we try to grapple with, 'how do we use this and how do we employ it effectively?' And I know that individuals are grappling with it and there's been some scholarly research trying to study it a little bit, as well."

Smit recalled an article that looked at the frequency of different emoji skin tones posted on Twitter. It claimed that darker skin tones appear at a disproportionately higher rate, with white people often opting not to use their shade. Smit says this isn't surprising.

"The anecdotes that you hear when you ask people about this are things like, 'I don't want to shove my whiteness in people's faces' or 'I find it's oppressive to remind people that I'm white.'"

Kendall Jenner called out for cultural appropriation

It's a controversy that came up this summer when celebrity Kendall Jenner tweeted "Girl Power" with a raised fist emoji darker than her skin colour.

The whole ordeal left many people shaking their heads, saying the issue is ridiculous. But Smit says it's really just a symptom of a broader problem with platforms like texting and Twitter. Subtlety and nuance are hard to come by and attempting to correct that with new symbols can end up resulting in more confusion.

"We'll continue to grapple with these questions, and we should, right? We should think about these things, and talk about these things and have informed conversations," says Smit.

About the Author

Blair Sanderson is an award-winning nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years. Contact blair.sanderson@cbc.ca