How to fix Apple’s emoji diversity problem

It's time to give the power to the people.

Internet Culture

Published Jan 12, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 7:14 pm CDT

Emoji have become the quickest, funniest way of expressing ourselves. They are even used by academics to share their research. But is it possible to include the wide range of diverse human experience inside the confines of a keyboard?

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In 2012 with the rollout of its iOS 6, Apple caught up with the times and included two new emoji representing same-sex couples of both genders holding hands. However, these emoji left much to be desired for queer users, as LGBT culture encompasses more than just smiling paired-up lovebirds.

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So graphic designer Kimberly Linn has taken it into her own hands to rectify the situation by creating more diverse emoji that she could better relate to. She has designed about 50 emoji inspired by lesbian culture and tongue-in-cheek stereotypes, including a U-Haul truck and a DVD cover of The L Word.

“On one hand, you think there’s no need for them to be that inclusive—they’re just emoji,” Linn told Mashable. “But at the same time, they’ve become a language. And my friends and I have never had anything that represented us.”

The lesbian-themed emoji were first released on Instagram and got enough positive feedback that Linn’s employer, the ad agency Pitch, decided to fund the project to become a standalone app as part of their employee creative incubator. “Lesbian Emoji” are now available as a free app on the Apple Store.

The fact that companies like Apple and Pitch are open to investing in inclusive and diverse products for customers gives us some hope that more emoji will soon debut that will better represent communities that are often underrepresented. Here are some examples.

LGBT People

Apple’s same-sex couple emoji were a good start, but what about gay folks who are single or representing a same-sex family? Considering there are over 800 emoji currently available to iOS users, it’s seems like a grave foresight that only two directly apply to LGBT populations—or three if you consider the rainbow emoji.

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Apple could take a page from Facebook, who released a set of LGBT-themed “stickers” in their messenger program just in time for pride celebrations in June of this year. The stickers included the prerequisite cute gay couples, of all ages and persuasions, but Facebook also dared to depict more niche aspects of the LGBT community, including a burly man decked in leather and what looked like a drag queen in RuPaul’s spotlight.

Facebook’s well-received pride stickers were designed by an openly gay Facebook designer, Cathy Lo, who collaborated with Facebook’s creative producer for stickers to get the LGBT sticker pack just right.

“Pride, love, and celebration were the themes that we wanted to express and we also wanted the characters to feel authentic, real and friendly,” Lo said on Facebook’s design blog. Beyond representing the gay community, Facebook’s pride stickers also do a great job of being inclusive of different ethnicities and age brackets. “We knew we wanted to represent different ethnic groups, ages, genders and sexual orientations,” she continued.

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People of Color

Facebook should be commended for including a black drag queen and a proud black father in their pride stickers, but not all emoji get high notes for including African-American representation. More egregious than the fact that there are only two same-sex couple emoji, there are only two depicting people of color. One emoji has been referred to as “vaguely Asian” and the other one is a man wearing a turban, which are not exactly the most positive and representative.

This omission has not gone without notice. In December 2012, Miley Cyrus addressed the lack of emoji featuring people of color on Twitter, citing that emoji needed an “ethnicity update.” Then last year, several petitions surfaced calling for Apple to include emoji dark-skinned faces in the latest iOS update in the fall, but no such inclusions took place.

The Daily Dot’s Nico Lang has linked this problem depicting racial diversity to an even wider issue: racial microaggressions, best described as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” 

Swiping through hundreds of images and not finding a single one that can express your identity, never mind the fact that monkeys have three to choose from, certainly qualifies as a microagression.

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Fortunately, we may start seeing a change to all this. Unicode, the organization that developed emoji, has revealed that new emoji of color will be included in iPhones as early as this summer. In addition to the existing yellow skin color, skin shades ranging from pink to dark brown will reflect the six skin tones most recognized standards of dermatology.

People with Disabilities

Another community that is currently underrepresented in the existing set of emoji is people with disabilities. All we have is the wheelchair sign that can be found next to the no smoking sign. This is certainly not something that can be used to humanize people with disabilities. Unfortunately, though, there are no petitions or organizations currently working on third-party development projects to create emoji that includes this underserved community.

LGBT People of Color with Disabilities

One argument against emoji being included to represent all the different colors of the rainbow would be that it would become over bloated, with users having to scroll through pages and pages of emoji just to find the right one. But that is already the case. There are currently so many emoji that are seldomly used or have any real-life applications. Emoji now seem rather dated, not only because they don’t include modern-day representations of America, but because what they seem to include are images that don’t connect. The whole thing is due for an update, removing the dated emoji to include more relevant depictions.

An ideal way to make up for all that the existing set of emoji is missing is to redesign how emoji are installed and let the users take the controls. Wouldn’t it be empowering to be able to quickly design and use our own custom emoji, tailored to each person’s own life experience? That way we could create all types of people emoji in all sorts of situations, like a black leather daddy helping his wheelchair-bound friend move using a U-Haul truck.

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If Apple wants to fix its racism, disability, and LGBT issues, it’s time to finally give the power to the people.

Photo via suzi45241/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 12, 2015, 1:00 pm CST