Writer and advocate Rhianna Jones was in the midst of emailing some friends one night — signing her message with her usual “insert Afro emoji here” — when she had an “aha” moment. “I decided I shouldn’t have to type that anymore,” Jones says. “We deserve to be seen in our conversations too.” Inspired by the approval of dating app Tinder’s campaign for an interracial couple emoji, Jones started a petition and submitted a proposal for an Afro hair emoji in March 2019.
Jones teamed up with graphic designer Kerrilyn Gibson to design the prototype. “Kerrilyn did wonders to fit as much ’fro as possible in the minute parameters of the emoji dimensions,” she says. “Naturally, Afros come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and textures, but we wanted a design that was definitively and visibly an Afro.”
Emojis have become a touchstone of instant messaging culture, a visual language capturing the zeitgeist of the digital era. They also often express something more succinct and powerful than words. “When it comes to communication, it can be difficult to express the subtleties of emotions in text,” says technology researcher Kate Miltner, who focuses on the intersection of technology, identity, culture, and inequality. “Emojis allow us to provide important context for expressing ourselves.”
While emojis have made strides toward diversity, they still have a long way to go when it comes to representation. A more diverse approving body and a more transparent and inclusive approval process could lead to emojis that represent different cultures.
Emojis were the brainchild of Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, who was tasked to sketch 12-by-12-pixel icons to fit the interface of Japan telecom company Docomo’s i-mode service for sending short messages over pagers. Taking inspiration from manga and pictograms, Kurita’s original set of 176 emojis — which has been added to the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art — was released in 1999. It included the earliest iterations of the 💓, 🙂, and 👊 emojis, albeit pixelated and slightly off-center.