From Barbies to Emojis, Why Are Minorities Represented Last?

February 25, 2015

2:30 pm

Apple announced this week that it plans to roll out the new beta of OS X to developers, which includes a more racially-diverse group of emoji. The sigh of relief echoed throughout various tech media sites: It took a long time but it’s finally here so let’s rejoice!

I’m sitting here wondering, though, why did it take so long?

I will be honest, since emojis have become an essential component of my messaging repertoire, I was thrilled with the idea of being able to finally send cartoonish representations of me. But this excitement was short-lived, I quickly realized that yet again, I’m represented last.

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I come from a generation that grew up watching minorities being either misrepresented or not represented at all on television. Disney princesses looked nothing like me, but somehow I was supposed to aspire to be them.  Batman is one of my favorite superheroes, and he looks nothing like my real-life hero, my father; instead, most black male characters on TV and films were depicted as menacing. Black and Latino females characters were exotic or sexual. Most of the books I read in school didn’t have a black or Latino protagonist. This in spite of the fact that at the first school I ever attended in this country, most of my classmates were Hispanic. I was told to imagine a world with people experiencing similar emotions to to me, but looked nothing like me.

Studies have shown that kids notice when people who look like them are not being represented or are depicted as less important. I played with white Cabbage Patch Kids, and most of my Barbie dolls were white. When I asked my mother why, she said that there weren’t black Barbies and said that I would gravitate towards the white Barbies anyway. And forget about a black Ken.

It’s through popular culture that we imagine ourselves through the eyes of others. American sociologist W.E.B Du Bois talked about the concept of “double consciousness” in his book The Soul of the Black Folks. Although the book was published in 1903, his message is relevant today, which is that identity is shaped by how one race is represented compared to another.

“One ever feels his two-ness, –An American, a Negro. Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings. Two warring ideals in one dark body,” wrote Du Bois.

For minority groups, cultural representation in films–and now emojis–becomes an important channel to confront myths and stereotypes. When we are underrepresented, it sends a message that our stories are not compelling enough and our communities not relevant. But we are far from irrelevant in this country; minorities are expected to be the majority by 2050.

Emojis aren’t something Apple creates or has final say over. According to Mashable, an organization called Unicode provides the options and standards on emojis for several tech companies (including Microsoft and Google).

“Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms. There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard,” Katie Cotton, Apple’s vice president of worldwide corporate communications, told MTV.

That’s just not enough of an excuse. Today, tech companies are gatekeepers that mediate between cultural objects and their audiences. They have the responsibility to make sure all races are represented. And it should start with the younger generation.


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Camila has been heavily active in South Florida’s tech startup community, where she is a co-host of a local radio show called pFunkcast. Camila previously worked at Greenpeace International and the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in various communication roles. A proud Brazilian who spent most of he life in Peru, she is passionate about traveling and documentaries.

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