My Discomfort with Light-Skinned People Choosing the Dark-Brown Emoji

And How to Choose a More Accurate Emoji Skin Tone

A light-skinned person with light-brown hair removing the dark-brown make-up for their face
Image: Screenshot of a light-skinned woman with light-brown hair removing the dark-brown make-up from her face.

First, I am grateful to Black folks who model courage, fierceness, and unapologetically speak up even when it’s uncomfortable.

This piece is for people who understand that:

Any color can uphold white supremacy, that colorism exists within BIPoC communities, and that being Latina/o/e/x doesn’t equate to being of color.

If you, the reader, doesn’t agree with these statements, then this article may feel like an attack.

Over the summer, I was scrolling through social media and saw that someone whom I see as a light-brown Latina used the dark-brown emoji in a post. My heart raced, my body trembled, it was shocking. I texted a friend and asked if I was making a big deal out of nothing. She affirmed that I wasn’t.

I processed this situation with various friends and every single time I processed, I started with: “I know this is petty.” But the petty stuff has deep roots and this is where it took me:

In elementary school, a light-skinned Latina classmate asked me why I was so dark. It was one of the first times I felt ashamed of my skin. I think it had to do with the way she pointed at my arms and the tone she used.

I responded to my classmate with something like, “it’s because it’s summer, but I’m lighter in the winter.” The next day I took an overexposed picture of myself to show that I was slightly lighter when it’s not summer. After this incident, I started wearing long-sleeves and stayed out of the sun as much as possible.

I began to truly love my skin in my late teens/early twenties. But it took time to embrace, celebrate and allow the sun to kiss my skin without the fear of getting darker. That’s why I pause with wonder when light-skinned people parade their brown pride in their emojis.

I understand that light-skinned people may be using the dark-brown tone to reclaim their Black and more melanated ancestors. But our ancestors’ experiences are not our experiences.

I also understand that some are just trying to diversify emoji tones. I’m not the first one to get caught up in the emoji politics, here are additional reasons white and light-skinned folks choose darker colored emoji tones.

To be fair, five tones is not representative of a whole person or all people in the world. To learn more about how these five tones came to be, read about another person of color who unpacks some of the complexities with emoji tones.

Image: Table with six rows of different tones and emojis, from the top: Black, dark-brown, brown, light-brown, white, yellow. Image is from the first hyperlinked article above.

Skin tone, like identity, is fluid. Our skin tones can change throughout the year. The geography we live in and different body parts are illustrative of that. For example, I’m darker in Oaxaca, my native land, than when I’m in Northern California. Various family members have said, “ya agarraste tu color,” (you got your color back) when I’m in Oaxaca.

So when light-skinned Latinx/o/e/x people choose the dark-brown tone, it tells me that they may be uncomfortable with their whiteness. I’ve had light-skinned people tell me that they wish they had darker skin, but I don’t think they actually comprehend how convoluted this statement is for those of us who were once shamed for our brown skin, and sometimes still are.

Another reason I’m uncomfortable with NBPoC (Non-Black People of Color) choosing a darker toned emoji is because I read it as romanticization. Black women know the romanticization of their features all too well. The NBPoC who have no qualms getting bigger lips, hips, butts, wearing braids, dreads, tanning and so forth are often the same ones who diminish Black voices when they speak up about racial injustices. I won’t list examples, but they’re all over social and mainstream media.

The appropriation of features and skin tone minimizes the trauma that Black and dark brown people experience.

Further, our physical bodies and features also carry privilege. The shape of one’s lips, nose, eye color, facial structure, hair texture and color, and body size are used as metrics for beauty. Certain features are labeled more beautiful based on their proximity to European features. This is also reflected in mainstream media. Though things are changing, we still have a long way to go.

This is why I choose my emoji tone based on how I think others see me, not how I see myself. Because how others see me is what determines how strangers and people I don’t have an intimate relationship with treat me. I use the solid brown✋🏽, not dark-brown tone✋🏾, even though I think I’m in between.

I also choose the solid brown because I have people in my circle who are Black and choose the dark-brown tone. I want Black people to choose first and the rest of us make our decisions based on their preferences.

How to Choose a More Accurate Emoji Tone

If my points make sense and you empathize with my experience, here are some ways to help you arrive at a more accurate emoji tone:

  • See what tone Black folks in your social media circle choose. Is that their first choice or did they arrive at that choice because too many of us started using the dark-brown tone and pushed them to choose the black tone?
  • Choose multiple colors, acknowledge ALL of your ancestors, including the European ones. Or don’t use emojis at all. Also, yellow is not neutral, it’s still white, because how come Apu and Carl aren’t yellow in the Simpsons?
  • Reflect on your other features that are visible to others, especially how those features align with European standards of beauty. Do you have other European features that others would focus more on than your skin tone?
  • Ask others how they see you. Do a poll. Most social media platforms have polling features. Ask your friends/followers what tone they see you as.

Choosing a more accurate emoji isn’t going to solve systemic oppression. I just hope that my experience and the exercise above teaches us to not always center ourselves, even if we have experienced racial or ethnic marginalization and other forms of oppression.

Zapotec mom and entrepreneur