The Family Emojis Are Now Equally Useless For Everyone

The Family Emojis Are Now Equally Useless For Everyone
Above: Family emojis have been redesigned as silhouettes in iOS 17.4. Photo: Jeremy Burge

And that's a good thing.

For too long, the many yellow family emojis have been 'close enough' as a stand-in for white families, but useless for darker skinned families wanting to represent themselves.

A change to the family emoji set has been a long time coming, and while the solution won't please everyone, it is categorically more equal than the previous situation.

What changed?

Family emojis that once showed as a collection of yellow men, women, boys and girls are now represented with genderless silhouettes as part of a recommendation from Unicode in 2023 and included as part of today's iOS 17.4 software update.

Above: No longer 25 yellow combinations, the family emoji set is now just four silhouettes.

To be more precise, Unicode recommended the changing of existing family emojis to use this silhouette style, and added four new family combinations:

In addition, family emojis are now considered symbols, for the purpose of categorisation.

They'll no longer be found after the people and couples on the keyboard, but can be found in their demoted position between the πŸ…ΏοΈ P Button and 🎦 Cinema symbol.

When did this happen?

iOS 17.4 came out today – 5 March 2024 – and includes these changes. Those with access to Google's latest emoji updates, will also see these changes, and may have done for the past few months.

Android is a little more varied when it comes to which devices get emoji updates, and when. So some might see this now, some will get the change later. Google's update more closely followed the recommendation from Unicode, and kept gendered hairstyles in the silhouettes for the existing options.

As can be seen on Emojipedia, Samsung phones now use updated silhouette styles for the new family emojis, but there has been no retroactive change (yet?) for the previous 25 family emojis.

Why not just add black families?

I last wrote about this topic in 2020 when the prevailing view was to keep the yellow family emojis 'as-is'.

There's plenty more background in that article covering other options considered by Unicode to address the shortcomings of the yellow family unit, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

The simple answer is that the only two options fully addressed the gap: all or nothing.

Above: Yellow family emojis have not been usable for black families in the same way they have for white families. Image: iStockphoto photos, Apple emoji designs, Emojipedia composite.

After a proposal for 7,230 new family emojis was declined in 2019, the remaining option to fix the issue of the yellow family emoji was what we see today. A set of family silhouettes, lacking any detail to identify gender or race.

Additional Background

The new silhouette-style family symbols were agreed by Unicode in September 2023, as part of Emoji 15.1.

Two relevant documents published in recent years by the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee are:

a. Review of options in 2020 resulting in no change: Multi-skintoned Families for Unicode 14.0: Exploration and Recommendations

b. A new path forward proposed in 2022: Guidelines for Family Emoji ZWJ Sequences that currently lack RGI tone support

The specific recommendation for family emojis to be replaced with silhouettes states:

Adding toned support for the last remaining β€œpeople” emoji (see Fig 4) poses unique solutions and associated consequences L2/20-196This document is an update on established ESC priorities pursuant to L2/19-101 with a focus on FAMILY emoji. In 2019, the subcommittee explored seven paths forward to extend skintone support to the existing 27 family emoji as described in L2/19-392. Later, in 2020 this path was ultimately declined as described in L2/20-114.
However, TS #51, section 2.4 Diversity outlines, β€œUnicode emoji characters for people and body pa�s are intended to be generic and shown with a generic (nonhuman) appearance, such as a yellow/orange color similar to that used for smiley faces.” Given the design of family emoji are distinctly human in appearance and lack tone suppo� this is not congruent with our broader guidelines and principles. With no path forward to formally add variant suppo�, the ESC recommends these 27 emoji to be redesigned with a more generic appearance.
Above: Excerpt from Unicode document L2/22-276.

As reported by Keith Broni at Emojipedia, Google's method here was to keep gendered silhouettes for the existing families. While Apple has also removed gender from these earlier (now hidden) family emojis.

Above: Google kept gendered hairstyles in the older family emojis, unlike Apple. Image: Google / Emojipedia

Apple could have minimised claims of retroactively changing the meaning of emojis by following Unicode and Google's lead here. Even if the practical difference at emoji sizes is minimal.

Equality means equality, even for emojis

Some pushback I've received over the years while advocating for improved family emoji support falls along the lines of does it really matter or who cares? This feedback, I note, has rarely come from black or brown families.

These latest changes may seem small or unnecessary to some, but for many, they are long overdue.

As I wrote in 2020:

Silhouettes might please no-one, but at least they might displease everyone equally.

And that's what we've ended up with today: silhouettes that make the family emoji as lacking in utility for white families now, as it has been for black families for more than a decade.

(at least we've moved on from this nightmare from 2012 ⬇️)



  • I was a member (and at one time, a vice chair) of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee during much of the time discussed in this post.
  • As Chief Emoji Officer at Emojipedia during the same years, I was also reporting on the status of these updates for the wider world.
  • I believe that removing humans from the early emoji sets would have avoided many issues. Every solution from this point forward will be a compromise, and there are many thoughtful people attempting to make the best of what they've been given.
  • While I remain founder of Emojipedia, my opinions here do not represent Emojipedia itself nor do they represent Unicode or the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee.
  • I think there should be fewer new emojis overall, yet also appreciate the new  πŸ‹β€πŸŸ© Lime emoji coming into existence. People contain multitudes.
Follow Mobile Tech Journal on Mastodon