Alibaba’s enterprise chat app DingTalk has what, for some, would be a conversation-stopping emoji: a dark-toned face with a squint of confusion and exaggerated, cartoonish lips.
The expression, which resembles racial caricatures of African Americans in the early 20th century, can be found at the bottom of DingTalk’s built-in emoji list. It’s unclear when it was added; although DingTalk notes the addition of new emojis in updates over the last two years, it doesn’t list this specific one. TechNode reporters first noted its appearance on Friday, Feb. 1.
The emoji’s expression and question marks are similar to the “Confused Nick Young” meme, which began gaining traction in 2014 after the American basketball player appeared in a YouTube web series. The image became popular not only on English-language social media but also in China, where the NBA has an avid following.
Alipay, Alibaba’s popular payment app, doesn’t feature the potentially offensive emoji in its default chat options.
A DingTalk representative told TechNode that the emoji “was meant to reflect the appreciation young people have for cultures around the world.”
“DingTalk certainly had no intention to offend, and we understand the emoji has caused concern. We are removing the emoji and hope you’ll accept our apology for any discomfort the design caused.”
The emoji could be more than an embarrassment for the chat app. Alibaba seeks to promote its workplace efficiency offering not just in China, but also abroad. DingTalk’s official website is available in Chinese (traditional and simplified), English, Japanese, and Vietnamese. However, with missteps like these, DingTalk could face more than just language barriers in its effort to attract international enterprises.
In the US and elsewhere, cultural representation via emoji became a talking point in 2015 after two activists campaigned to get a dumpling approved by the Unicode Consortium, which standardizes emoji sets worldwide. Since then, their organization Emojination have also helped win new additions like a woman in a hijab, as well as a red envelope in partnership with Chinese search engine Baidu.
The same year, the Unicode Consortium also introduced five different skin tones to choose from, in addition to the default yellow, when posting emojis depicting people. Some, however, argue that this is still not enough to represent the wide variety of humans around the world.
Update: This article was updated at 5:49pm, Feb. 1, to include a response from a DingTalk representative.