This is the fifth entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.


Is it blackface to use the black emojis if you are white?

Okay, so I’ve been holding off on answering this one. It was one of the first to come in, and the only one I’ve gotten so far that made me suspect my leg was being pulled. I thought about just dumping it, but ultimately I guess I’d rather err on the side of looking like a doofus — if I’m encouraging other people to step outside their comfort zone and take a risk, I should be willing to do the same myself. What the hell. Here goes.

In general, if you’re worried about causing offense, there are two things to bear in mind: intent and reception. “Is this a messed up idea?” and “Are people going to respond badly to this?” are related questions, but not identical.

So let’s look at the two issues separately.

I’m not a hundred percent sure what you have in mind when you refer to “using” the black emojis. (Feel free to tell me in comments or on Ask.) If you just mean using them as you would the regular ones, the relevant intent question would be why you were doing it, and I’m not coming up with an obvious answer to that hypothetical. If you mean using them to illustrate differences in color or race between real or fictional people, I can see that being weird or not-weird, depending. If you’re picturing creating some sort of a black “character,” that’s blackface and it’s gross and you shouldn’t do it.

My answer on reception is simpler: If you’re worried you might offend someone by doing something, that’s a reason not to do it. It may not be sufficient reason not to do it, but it’s a reason. Generally speaking, we all like to avoid being obnoxious when we can.

Ultimately, I can’t say whether what you’re imagining is blackface because I don’t know what you’re imagining. All I can tell you is that if I had the idea to do something and I wasn’t sure whether it was blackface or not, I’d take that as an indication that (1) it might be, and (2) I probably wouldn’t be the only one wondering.