Beware, expressionistic faces of Simpsonesque yellow hue and traditional nuclear families—your emoji dominance of texting is drawing to a close.
Apple has unveiled new, diverse sets of emoji representing a variety of ethnicities and family types in the latest beta versions of iOS (for iPhones and iPads) and OS X (for Macs). The change lets you pick new, realistic skin tones for many emoji characters, ranging from dark brown to pasty white, all in addition to traditional crayon-yellow. To change the color of a human representative emoji, just select and hold until the new tones appear.
Of course, the diverse emoji aren’t available to the general public yet, although the wait probably won’t be that long. In the meantime, we’re stuck with a turban-wearing young Sikh boy as the only emoji available to represent all people of color. For all Apple’s recent proclamations of diversity, it’s actually taken the company nearly four years to start representing the people who use its products.
The same, of course, is true of Google and any other company using emoji. That’s because the new characters are only possible thanks to a change in the Unicode standard’s “skin tone modifier.” (As of writing, there was no word as to when Android will update to use the new emoji set. I pinged Google for comment and will update if I hear anything back.)
A Brief History Of Emoji
Emoji first appeared in 1999 on mobile phones in Japan. According to Unicode, it was unclear at the time “whether these characters would come into widespread use,” which may explain why there was such a lack of diversity early on.
For frequent emoji users, it’s hard to remember a time before we could express ourselves more freely in text messages. In fact, Unicode 6.0 encoding with emoji didn’t become available on iPhones until November 2011. But in just a few short years, they would overtake iMessages everywhere.
Of course, the immediate predecessor of emoji—typographic emoticons, which may have been around for a very long time—didn’t have racial or orientation-related diversity issues. The simple 🙂 is a universally understood smile, devoid of any gender, sexuality or racial signifiers.
Emoji likewise tried to sidestep racial identification thanks to their yellow hue, which may have made them somewhat more relatable to a broader audience than if they’d actually been colored white. Yet as technology has spread to vast numbers of people around the globe, so has a desire for emoji that more closely resemble their users. Better late than never.