Ronan Farrow Takes On Lack of 'Racial Diversity' in Emoji

On a truly idiotic segment of the July 29 edition of Ronan Farrow Daily, the host of the Lean Forward network’s “next-generation news show” discussed the current state of emojis with linguist John McWhorter, CNet’s Maggie Reardon, and journalist Dave Cullen. Farrow commented how the popular emoticons are “becoming more and more the fabric of the kind of communication you see,” and truly out-liberaled himself with his question to McWhorter, who happens to be black.

After wondering whether emojis, which originated in Japan, could alter  “tech-driven communication across international lines,”  Farrow asked McWhorter, “do you think there's a limitation we're suffering from in terms of the racial diversity of these emojis?” [See video below]

The linguist replied in all seriousness,  “No, I think that actually what we're going to see more is a gender skew. Apparently, women are more likely to use them and more richly.” A “gender skew”? Could emojis be engaging in gender discrimination? Where are the transgender emojis?

According to Farrow, “it's not just a black/white issue.” After showing a picture of a darker skinned emoji with a turban on, he commented “it's not a particularly nuanced portrayal” of “someone who is Arab or Middle Eastern.”

Well bravo, Ronan, for taking on such an important issue, cutting through all that rather unimportant crap in the news – Russia, Israel/Gaza, the failures of ObamaCare, etc. – to focus on what’s really important.

No one is better suited to lead the charge for the cause of emoji equality than ol’ Blue Eyes Jr.

See relevant transcript below:

MSNBC
Ronan Farrow Daily
July 29, 2014
1:52 p.m. Eastern
2 minutes and 53 seconds


RONAN FARROW: I think it's becoming more and more the fabric of the kind of communication you see. Even on serious issues, we actually, yesterday’s show we were covering tough stuff, we were covering Gaza. Someone chimed in and said, here's a summary of your show in emoji. It's a thing that happened. Emojis originated in Japan. They've now clearly gone global. But some of the characters are the still quite specific to Japan. As evidence of that, like  the bowing apologizing businessman. You see him there. What do you see in terms of the effect this might have on tech-driven communication across international lines?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Well, emojis are actually a wonderful thing. There's a cutesy aspect to them that I think traces to this sort of Hello Kitty Japan business. As these things move on, what it is, is it’s a way to indicate the aspect of speaking in which we show how we feel about something, which is easy to get lost in writing. So often if you write something, you can't really feel the feeling behind it unless you go to a certain amount of work. Emojis are a way of adding that aspect of things. Linguists call it pragmatics. It's a lousy term. But it's really an articulate thing be able to do. Now, this idea that you can write something completely in emojis, I hate to throw cold water on it, but it doesn't work because you can't specify what you're talking about. What the Emojis are for is to show how you feel about them, which is an integral part of how we communicate.

FARROW: Right. And certain parts of speech are very hard to get right in emoji form. I think we'll tackle that over time as this evolves.  But Dave, even with those limitations, we've seen this infiltrate just about every pop culture frontier. Katy Perry did an entire music video in emoji. One of my personal favorites was this viral content that went online of a rendering of The Shining in emoji. Jordan Peele, the comedian, did that. Actually, I think we have a roll through of– yes there it is. The family goes in a car to the hotel. There's a black guy, ice cream, kid with the shining. That's actually a great way to get into the question of race. They used the dark moon symbol for Halloran, the black character in The Shining. John, do you think there's a limitation we're suffering from in terms of the racial diversity of these emojis?

MCWHORTER: No, I think that actually what we're going to see more is a gender skew. Apparently women are more likely to use them and more richly. Now, if Black Twitter is any indication -- and I'm going out on a limb here. If the fact there's a certain African-American affection for Twitter that non-African-Americans apparently don't have to the same extent, maybe it will be that black people and fellow travelers will use emojis more. But I think that the verdict is out at this point.

FARROW: And it's not just a black/white issue. Do we have an image of what you have to go with if you want to render, for instance, someone who is Arab or Middle Eastern? Yes. It's not a particularly nuanced portrayal. Dave, do you think emoji has to grow up before it goes mainstream?

Laura Flint
Laura Flint is a 2014 summer intern for the MRC's News Analysis Division.