Emojis, Colourblindness, and the Bliss of Ignorance

by Beauchamp Art

It is worth considering how the graphical representations of the human face embedded within everyday conversation, in the form of ‘emojis’ (formally referred to as ‘emoticons’, more colloquially known as ‘smiley faces’) may affect the individual’s perception of the type of figure depicted, particularly taking into consideration the context of the discourse that is being undertaken, given that a recent scientific paper found that “emoticons are processed in occipitotemporal sites similarly to faces due to their familiar configuration” [Churches, 2014], in other words, the brain reads these sorts of images as faces, to some degree.

Nevertheless, this is not totally surprising in itself, given the ease at which the mind will anthropomorphise even the most abstract inanimate objects in tremendous feats of parabola, picking out familiar faces from celestial bodies, humanoid structures in the coincidences of nature, and see the order and elaborate constructions of the universe as evidence of construction; erroneously ignoring the structures the brain projects onto the patterns and forms of the world and beyond.
So when a commercial company from the postcolonial country of the USA begins to racialise fairly humanoid imagery, then the leap from seeing to interpreting and inferring may seem not all that great. The use of ‘emojis’ and other branded figures is banal, given their perceived insignificance and their place in the everyday, the passive; so must be actively scrutinised, or they should seep into the unconscious far too readily. With little pause, images that reflect the darker skinned, melanin rich face are painted on unaware caucasian figures, and may be wore like mask, caricatures, as an attempt to provide greater racial representation falls flat as it invariantly racially profiles the ‘other’.

Do people of different ethnicities then have to use only the tone appropriate to their particular lineage? Does this ethnographic diversity of emojis mean men and women can wear their masks so casually as to erase a genuine sense of racial identity? Could this not just reinforce existing white privilege within an anonymous, faceless online conversation?

The initial colour of the most of the emoji faces was yellow, a relatively neutral tone also favoured by the Lego company in the production of their toys until fairly recently (as now small pink and brown heads can be found), though still weighted with a more white perspective, as well potentially being consider a stereotyping of East Asian figures, already weighed down with the pejorative description of ‘yellow’. Again, this could be considered another fairly casual act that may be considered harmful; which is possibly worse than the South and East asian caricatures mentioned in Tutt’s article. It is the discrimination that is so easily overlooked that can be most harmful, not only because it can be done without intention but felt with great affect, but that it is so readily forgotten by the perpetrator (like the employer who casually ignores certain members of their staff; to them it is nothing, to the employee it could be hell).

Moreover, the gender depictions within the range of emojis relies again on fairly unimaginative, stereotyping. There may be mix and same sex couples, but the men wear blues and green, and the women orange, reds and pinks; or black tops with bunny ears, reminiscent of the commonplace Playboy bunny. Yet another subverted cultural symbol the subtly reveals how easily shocking imager sinks into the background; figures associated with pornography, sexual discrimination, and systematic objectification become a pair of happy, smiling girls.

The memes of hate and symbols of oppression dissolve in the mass cultural apparition and …water thing… of online social media interfaces. The interface designed to be seem as transparent as possible reveals its opacity, its mediation, its rational, in the cracks of human ignorance that forged it. Intending no harm, no offence, no awareness. Even worse than to be colourblind and ignore the historical precedent for modern inequality is give each person a brush and tell them to paint their face whatever colour they please. In the name of equality the imbeciles hand around boot polish and declare ‘we are all the same’.
Such an oversight negates that people are not all the same, they should be, but historically they have been treated different on the basis of differences dictated by those with power, so the differences of people must be recognised, not demonised or forgotten, but understood, and the privilege given to the few must be criticised, not just accepted as the norm. This negates the ‘other’, and promotes ‘otherness’, and the unconscious ostracization of certain groups.

Much as a Meritocracy promotes the reinforcement of existing hierarchies while proclaiming to sort people accord to their own merit (this merely demonise those seen to be without ‘merit’ as defined by the establishment, and encourages no equality, only a slightly different inequality; one that reassures the elite that they are elite because they deserve to be, and those below are in their rightful, secondary place) a colour blind system only seeks to ignore the problem of racial discrimination and segregation even within supposedly fairer societies. It goes hand in hand with the malice of Meritocracy, for it declares ‘THEY are inferior because THEY deserve to be, and WE are greater because WE deserve to be; nothing to do with skin colour, or gender, or sexuality, it’s just an unfortunate coincidence those at the bottom happen to be made up of those sorts of people, whilst WE must take out rightful place’.

So simple hierarchies reassert themselves through the minute channels of idle conversation. In this instance, the benign has been highlighted, revealing its flaws, yet it is the wider systematic discrimination that has become overlooked in the face of the trivial, rather that forming part of a wider context of systematic scrutiny.

An emoji or emoticon or other graphic may not individual mean much, it may not in itself communicate much information, but collectively it has impact. One nip of an ant may be little more than an irritant, but there is never just one ant, it is always scouting ahead, there is always a army just over and under the hill. Small, unthinking acts mount up until the range of ignorance is vast, towering, and just considered part of the landscape, un-moveable, unquestionable, unthinkable that the world was any different, never thinking of when the tectonic plates first clashed, or when the first ant poked its head of the ground, or the first rain drop falls before a storm. Small oversights are frequently indicative of much greater problems; even with the best of intentions in mind, it is still possible to do great wrong.