From flesh to pixels

Ryerson School of Journalism

Emojis have become a second, more convenient language most of us speak on a regular basis.

Rather than typing out your approval of something your friend said, you can send them a thumbs up. With five different colours of thumbs to choose from, which do you pick if you aren’t light or dark skinned but somewhere between?

This is a predicament anyone who has “in between skin” has faced whether it be designing an avatar of themselves in a video game or picking a foundation colour. It can feel confusing to pinpoint precisely which colour you are when you have always considered yourself somewhere in the middle.

When Unicode, the company behind these symbols, received backlash for only having light-skinned emojis they created more options. The tones are based on the Fitzpatrick scale, which simply corresponds to how a person’s skin reacts to the sun rather than more complex factors like their race or ethnicity.

Frequent emoji-user and Ryerson University graduate student Caitlin Santos identifies as caucasian but uses the middle-coloured emoji.

“I could probably use two or three but when I’m tan is when I like myself best so that’s how I want to represent myself,” she said. “I also like that one more because it has the same colour hair I do.”

If you search emojis of that colour on Twitter or Facebook there are people from various races that use it. Even though race and skin tone are deeply connected, they appear to have less to do with one another than one should assume.

Angélica Dass started a project that had her photographing more than 3,000 people from 13 countries. They would sit against a white background that she would afterward fill with the colour of an 11-pixel area of the subjects’ nose.

“I remember my first drawing lessons in school as a bunch of contradictory feelings,” she said in a TED Talk in 2016. “I never understood the unique flesh coloured pencil. I was made of flesh but I wasn’t pink. My skin was brown but people said I was black.”

Variety still has its limitations in the tech world, though.

“There are not five skin tones on the planet,” said Peter Chow-White, an associate professor in communications at Simon Fraser University. “Does creating a bunch of skin tones change that they elected Trump in the US?… If the ultimate goal is to reduce racism this is a small skirmish thing around a bigger problem.”

The nature of technology allows people to use it in innocuous ways but that doesn’t stop them from projecting their own biases anyway.

“We’re really not all that different from each other,” Santos said. “But, there are some people that see these categories as a way to separate themselves from certain people.”

We expect technology to solve all of our problems but forget the flaws our own brains are encoded with.