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A selection of the “yellow face” emoji in question. (via Twitter)

Apple has finally decided to welcome people of color to the emoji club: Developers testing the latest version of Apple’s operating system reported Monday the addition of 300 new emoji, including several variations for skin tone and race.

There are dark-skinned faces, which is good. Different hair colors, which is great! But among the line of life-like skin tones, there’s an obvious outlier: that lurid yellow face.

Some jokesters asked: Is yellow for the Simpsons? For people with jaundice? Not for Asians, surely?! Across the Twitters and the tech blogs, viewers wtf-ed and omg-ed and tut-tutted accordingly. And on Chinese social media, Quartz reports, a veritable storm cloud of controversy is brewing.

If the yellow-faced character is supposed to represent Asians, pundits point out, Apple’s big push for multicultural inclusion just backfired spectacularly. That’s because “yellow face,” much like “black face,” describes a specific, historical portrayal of Asians — one that many consider racist, offensive and hurtful, to this day.

[Read more: Here are the new, racially diverse emoji]

But hold your horses, Apple-haters: The yellow face has nothing to do with Asians, or with race at all. In fact, that bright gold-yellow color — a standard hue for emoticons since the AOL days — it intended to be ethnically neutral. As my colleague Abby Phillip explained in November, when emoji’s governing body proposed the new skin tones, they did it according to an actual, dermatological scale: It’s called the “Fitzpatrick scale,” and it was developed by a professor at Harvard Medical School in the ’70s to describe how different skin tones respond to ultraviolet light.

The yellow face, Unicode makes quite clear, is not part of that scale. It has nothing to do with skin tone. Instead, it’s supposed to be a “generic (nonhuman)” default — the ethnically neutral, post-racial character you can whip out when you don’t feel like getting into the subtleties of your emoji’s identity.


The new emoji skin tones are based on the Fitzpatrick scale, a dermatological measure for how people respond to ultraviolet radiation. This chart is based on descriptions from the University of Maryland. (The Washington Post)

There is a ton of precedent for that already, of course, which is what makes the controversy kind of odd. Default, non-ethnic emoji are already yellow on all major platforms, including Apple, Microsoft and Google. Before Apple even supported emoji, the faces available in Japan and from other carriers had a yellow hue. Even AOL’s Instant Messenger — which supported a mere 12 cartoon emoticons in the late ’90s — used only yellow faces.

“The single point of consistency between the [world’s] emoji collections,” Bianca Bosker wrote last summer, is “… the orange kind of Homer Simpson/John Boehner color.”

In fact, if you trace it back far enough, the color choice seems to date as early as the 1960s, when the commercial artist Harvey Ball designed the iconic yellow smiley for a Massachusetts insurance company. The smiley was intended to boost employee morale after a difficult merger — hence the bright yellow hue. And as the smiley metastasized across popular culture, adorning bags and stamps and bumper stickers, the yellow just stuck. Somehow, no one thought to ask if it was racist when the smiley looked like this:


Yellow-faced emoji, as rendered on Twitter.

The problem arises, of course, when the color is applied to a more humanoid face — particularly as part of a big “multicultural” rebranding. Now Apple is asking us to see emoji not as icons, only, but as actual representative stand-ins for real human people. And as many a Twitter pundit has pointed out, when real human people are called “yellow-faced,” it’s … explicitly racist.

In either case, if the yellow face is racially neutral, where is the Asian character among Apple’s new offerings? In a lot of places, it turns out: According to Fitzpatrick’s scale, Asian skin tone can vary from Type III to Type V, depending.

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