Emojis are more than the silly, fun visuals we include in our text messages. They are a pervasive means of communication that have taken on symbolic meanings of their own. They are used to express our identities, interests, cultures, and emotions. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an emoji is worth ten times that in our tech-obsessed world. If this is the world we live in now, then surely our use of emojis should reflect our values as well.
Here is a quick guide to using emojis in diverse, equitable, and inclusive ways.
1. When you don’t have a lot of information, be as neutral as you can. It is best practice not to assume gender identity or racial backgrounds about people. “Neutral” does not mean a white or male emoji. Stick to the emojis that don’t communicate explicit race, ethnicity, and gender characteristics. We encourage you to have fun with emojis! When we’re in doubt, we use one of the cat expressions 😸.
2. Use multiple colours of emojis. If you must use one of the humanoid emojis in a post, try to include all the possible skin tones so that your audience feels represented like so: ✋🏿✋🏾✋🏽✋🏼✋🏻.
3. Reset the default skin tone for emojis. While the yellow/gold cartoony skin tone default is “supposed” to convey a raceless emoji, we are not sure that we agree. Slack has a resource that will walk you through changing your emoji menu to suit your skin tone.
4. Don’t use a darker skin tone emoji if you are white. While it may be tempting for a white person to use a darker skin tone emoji to demonstrate solidarity or allyship, it is best to use an appropriate skin tone emoji to avoid digital blackface or brownface.
5. Use arrows or other icons to point in lieu of a white hand. Elements of white supremacy sometimes creep into our emoji use. Many of us may implicitly use the white skin tone to signal a “default” emoji but it is better to use other available symbols that can communicate the same message such as using ➡️ instead of 👉🏻.
6. Don’t engage in sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination via emojis. While there are no explicitly sexual emojis, there are some that have come to take on a double meaning (e.g. 🍆, 🍑, 💦). As well, the finger pinch emoji has come to be a derogatory symbol referring to the size of male genitalia. Employers should take the time to create policies governing emojis in office communications.
7. Use emojis that break stereotypes. The vocational emojis are often used in stereotypically gendered or racialized ways. For example, the construction worker is often portrayed by the male codepoint (also known as the points of differentiation between the emoji options). It is important to be cognizant of reinforcing any kind of stereotype. Perhaps, use👷♀️ instead of 👷🏻♂.
8. Consider how your emoji use will impact those with blindness or low vision. Screen readers, also known as text-to-speech, interpret an emoji by reading a description of the emoji out loud. For example, a star emoji will be identified as a "star" out loud. In order to provide a good experience for those with visual impairments, avoid using multiples of the same emoji so the screen reader won’t read "cherry cherry cherry cherry cherry."
9. Not all emojis carry the same meaning or connotation across cultures and spaces. Be mindful of the subtext that an emoji carries and whether it is appropriate for the message you are trying to convey. For example, the 😇 emoji often denotes innocence or having performed a good deed in Western culture, but is used as a sign for death in China, and could be perceived as threatening.
Learn more on why emoji mean different things in different cultures.
We are moving towards a more inclusive design when it comes to emojis. Unicode Consortium, the creator of emoji, launched a disability-related array of emojis that portray wheelchair users and individuals with prosthetics. While many more modifiers have been added to emojis in order to signal different experiences, it is still not perfect. The fact remains that changing the skin tone of an emoji without changing the physical characteristics that make people unique such as hair texture, eye shape, nose shape, or lip shape is not conducive to diverse representation. As well, we still need more non-binary options (for example, a clear gap in the available representations of families and pregnancy). We also need more disability-related emojis involved in life activities such as sports, love, and family; more emojis wearing headdress options, and of course, diverse body sizes across the board. When we use emojis, it is important to be aware of the potential emojis have to create a more inclusive digital world and recognize the inherent limitations of a discrete set of images and what we can do to be better.
This post is an adapted excerpt from our upcoming Inclusive Social Guide, which will feature resources on an array of DEI topics such as creating content accessible for people with disabilities, inclusive web design for trans people, and drafting effective community standards. Sign up for our newsletter below to be notified when this guide becomes available!