The Most Common Emoji Skin Tone Reveals Something Surprising About White People

May 9th 2016

Taylor Bell

White people like to use emojis, especially the dark-skinned ones. 


The Atlantic's Andrew McGill found that a majority of white people don't feel comfortable using light-skinned emoticons and prefer to use their darker counterparts out of a possible sense of shame.

McGill based his findings on his personal experience and data he collected from part of Twitter's database system.

After studying a sample of 18,000 tweets, he found that only 19 percent of people used tweets with the lightest skin tone, 30 percent used the second lightest, and 52 percent opted to use the darker skin emojis.

The Atlantic Emoji Infographic

While white Twitter users outnumber Black users by almost 4:1, the use of darker colored skin tone emojis is much more common. The author argues that this is partly because of the shame that white people feel about using light-skin emojis.

"The folks I talked to before writing this story said it felt awkward to use an affirmatively white emoji; at a time when skin-tone modifiers are used to assert racial identity, proclaiming whiteness felt uncomfortably close to displaying 'white pride,' with all the baggage of intolerance that carries," McGill wrote.

In 2015, Apple introduced a set of ethnically diverse emojis after facing backlash from consumers who criticized the company for failing to include racial diversity, according to CBS.

At the same time, McGill points out that the decision to use a darker emoji may not be a conscious act of activism but a matter of convenience.

Most emojis have a default yellow color. But even though they appear yellow, they are phenotypically white, according to Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguistics Ph.D. and consultant in San Francisco who has studied emoticons. For example, Apple's princess emoji has blonde hair.

Apple IOS 9.3 princess emoji

Thus, white people may not feel the need to select the lighter emoji because "they are kind of represented by the default, anyway," Schnoebelen told The Atlantic.

But the fact that white people can use the default yellow emoji without the risk of denying their identity only reinforces the idea that white is a "raceless color," according to McGill.

"When white people opt out of racemoji in favor of the 'default', yellow, those symbols become even more closely associated with whiteness—and the notion that white is the only raceless color. But that, of course, is already a foregone conclusion in American society. The Internet cannot escape the bonds of our minds, as much as people may want it to."