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Describing POC's Skin...

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by DragonOfTheAerie, Aug 23, 2016.

  1. I just read this hilarious thing (Or at least I found it hilarious...)

    If White Characters Were Described Like People Of Color In Literature

    It's making fun of the way people of color's skin is often described in books. It's very common to compare skin color to chocolate, coffee, latte, tea, cinnamon, caramel. This is generally reviled as fetishizing and objectifying.

    Now, I have no intention of being fetishizing or objectifying and I want to portray all my characters as respectfully as possible. However, two things give me pause:

    1. White people's skin is described this way and no one cares. ('Creamy,' 'peach', like that, or a blush as like some red food.) So, the thing, though funny, isn't completely accurate. Its no less objectifying, but no one frowns upon objectifying a white woman by comparing her to delicious food. (Of course, describing a white persons skin tone isn't considered a necessity, since in books it's White Until Proven Non-White. We're supposed to assume it.)

    2. How DO I describe skin color in a way that's not offensive? My options are narrowed down rather quickly. I can't say 'tan' because readers will assume a tanned white person. Lots of skin color descriptions I've read in recently, trying to avoid this, are weird and make no sense. A book I read recently described a character as having 'golden' skin. Golden. I don't even know what that is supposed to mean. I also keep reading 'as dark as the night...' Skin tones THAT dark are not common, so it sounds as if the character was made to fit the description for lack of a better descriptor, not the other way around. Not to mention that reading that someone was 'as white as a cloud' (to flip it around) would be downright WEIRD.

    For some reason 'copper' sounds racist, I'm not sure why. Same with bronze. Im sick of reading 'bronzed,' besides being overused I have no idea what color it's talking about.

    Trying to think of brown things with positive connotations and honestly I'm realizing, what do I have to work with? Dirt, bark, dead leaves...poop?

    Closely connected is my failure to find a useful way to describe brown eyes. I find brown eyes very beautiful, but all the ways I can think of to describe their color sound...not so beautiful.

    So, maybe the reason that people of color are compared to food so much is that there simply aren't a lot of good comparisons with positive connotations. Not because authors are subconsciously objectifying and fetishizing them. Honestly these things that are so reviled accurately describe actual human skin tones, while things like 'golden'...do not.

    All the same, I want to avoid it. Is it worth avoiding or am I just being paranoid?
    Night Gardener and Ireth like this.
  2. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    I have exactly that problem with a certain biracial character of mine. He's half black and half West Indian, so I have no idea how to describe him in terms of what exact shade of brown he is. He's not a POV character or the MC, so theoretically it should be easier for me (I have a heck of a time working in descriptions of viewpoint characters from their own POV), but it's not. I have no idea if the MC (who is not of the same ethnicity) would be able to identify this character's mixed identity in terms of ethnicity. With his boyfriend, it's easy enough to say he has Polynesian features, like dark brown eyes and black hair (though I'm unsure of an adjective for the skintone there too).
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me I generally dont describe skin color. I just find other ways to get a character's race across. Skin color is superficial. A character's ethnicity is more than that, even if they were born in the west.
    TheCatholicCrow likes this.
  4. That's true, but in a fantasy setting with no connection to earth, ethnicity isn't the same, cultures are different, so you can't use them as a reference.

    I can say my one of black characters has bouncy, tightly curled dark hair, but...even a white person can have hair like that.
  5. I'm also in a bind due to the fact that both my POV characters' love interests are people of color. I don't outright say that my MC's are white, but I picture them that way. (Weeeellllllll, one of them has blond/light hair, and they're brother and sister...) I just know people are going to be up in arms about that. Not completely sure why, but...

    At any rate, them being love interests makes these particular characters especially hard to describe without sounding objectifying. It could be argued that love interests are inherently objectified.

    In any case I'm not about to make them white.
  6. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    For what might be the third or fourth time on this forum, here's Writing with Color's master post on the subject. They have a lot of posts that address exactly the kind of thing you're worrying about, DOTA, and this one's about specific descriptives. There's a previous one about what exactly is so objectionable about food comparisons.

    Frankly, I don't find this issue to be all that challenging? Maybe it's because I'm always describing my characters too much.
    Night Gardener and Asura Levi like this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    What I said still applies. Don't focus necessarily on the physical. If it's fantasy then you can focus on the character's culture and where they came from and add that to key physical traits that will paint complete picture, not just a physical one.

    Here's a bit of a heavy handed example to illustrate my point.

    "Sam came from the Yels region, where the sun scorched the lands dry for most of the year. He carried the tradition of his people, cutting the tight curls of his hair short, but he'd learn in short time long is better here, where the sun isn't so generous with her warmth. Here in the North, no one had seen anyone with skin such as his, and all stared when they first caught glimpse of its shade."
    TheCatholicCrow likes this.
  8. I've read this post before. Frankly, most of the examples for comparisons are useless (in my opinion). Topaz, might work for brown eyes. I could see clay/terra cotta for skin. But the others? I haven't even heard of some of those flowers and minerals. No chance the reader has. And...driftwood? Cattails? Acorns? Seashells? What? Seashells can be all sorts of colors, for starters, I have a dark pink one with white markings, and also white ones and orange ones, so I have no idea how you would compare someone's skin to a seashell. Is wood even those colors until it's stained? Also, most of them apply mainly to pretty light-skinned people (hay, sand) like, light skinned as in white. This is essentially what I mean when I say we don't have any good comparisons.

    The part at the beginning about basic colors and shades, though, is extremely helpful.

    I also read the post about why food comparisons are offensive. Am I the only one who thinks that "chocolate/coffee comparisons are offensive because slave labor is used to harvest them and black people were (are) slaves" is a huge stretch? I mean, I'm white, so I don't know if my opinion matters on this count, but really, if I said a character's hair was as white as cotton would everyone freak out because slave labor was once used to harvest cotton?

    I do understand why it's a good idea to avoid food-related comparisons, but... is anyone really bothered by them for that reason? It makes me wonder how much the author's opinions reflect the opinions of most other people...
  9. I really wish this worked in my situation...

    My world has gone through a society-ending catastrophe pretty much, and cultures have fallen apart, governments have been destroyed, and united under a totalitarian state except for a few outliers...

    Basically, cultural context doesn't even exist because all the world's various peoples have been mixed together and their cultures basically abolished. It's a very diverse crowd anywhere you go. No one would have any ties to the land their ancestors lived in. It would all be gone.
  10. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I don't know, it seems a little paranoid. Why are you trying so hard to get across that the said person has a different shade of skin colour?

    I generally just don't describe skin colour (or hair or eye colour) at all, unless it specifically comes up. E.g. I have one race of people living amongst another, and they have different skin tones. The only reason I mention it is because they have different status in the society, and it's fairly impossible for one race to impersonate the other (which specifically comes up).

    If you must mention it, compare it to something relevant. What I mean is that a country full of black people won't describe themselves as having dark skin, simply because everyone has it. It's like mentioning that people have two arms and two legs. Everyone has that, so there's no need to mention it.

    If, however, you have a light-skinned character that meets a dark-skinned person for the first time, you can mention that the latter has darker skin the the former. You don't resort to weird chocolate metaphors, and you get the message across because it's relevant. Or you can mention that someone stands out in the dark because of their white skin. Etc. etc.
  11. Hmm, I suppose it's because I really like to describe my characters. I like to know what characters look like when I read books; I get frustrated when nothing is described because I can't see it clearly. And I have a very clear picture in my mind of what many of my characters look like, and I want to share at least some of it with the reader.
  12. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

    Does anyone here watch Braindead? I ask 'cause reading this reminds me of a scene. Senator Red is looking at a security video and asks his chief of staff about two of the series' heroes who happen to be black...

    RED: Those two black people. Who are they? And I'm not being racist. I'm being descriptive. If they were dwarves, I'd say "those two dwarves."

    GARETH: I don't think you can say dwarves, either.

    RED: Well, it's a good thing they're not dwarves.
    Heliotrope and Demesnedenoir like this.
  13. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'm fairly confident it probably could even in your world. There will always be divisions formally or informally. And there will always be non-food elements in a world that you can play off of. You just have to find them.

    I'd suggest just start picking random books off your shelf and take a gander at how a wide selection of authors get character ethnicity across. Find the right books and you'll have a treasure trove of examples you can learn off of.
  14. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

    On topic, I say just describe and don't be shy about it. I think it's weirder if you go out of your way to avoid description. (I do understand how it's equally insulting to not describe the white people then spend a paragraph describing non-white.

    It's funny for me in real life. My daughters are "biracial" (Irish-Italian-Chinese), and they can't help but notice differences among themselves. My middle child is the darkest in the family, my oldest is the lightest, and my youngest has the curliest hair. My daughters all call Amelia "white" and Sabina "creamy brown." I don't know where creamy brown comes from... it's just a phrase the girls made up and are comfortable with. They don't think of anyone as white except Amelia, who really does have very light skin. I'm actually darker than my wife, despite being the only "white" person in my house.

    I honestly don't know how I'd describe my own family, but I'd probably use "a dark complexion" rather than "creamy brown." I think I'd want the reader to get an idea of what the character looks like, and less purple prose is good for descriptive purposes and less likely to offend.
  15. Peat

    Peat Sage

    I'd kinda missed the whole food descriptors being uncool thing. Annoying, because the were used for a reason - they're the most easily identifiable, most evocative shades of brown out there. Who cares that they were cliche? Cliche descriptions exist for a reason, its so someone can describe someone as quickly as possible and get back to the story.

    *shrugs* I got nothing. And that Writing with Color post was as helpful as a brick to the face - lets me know there's a problem, does nothing about helping me solve it.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  16. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    Dark complexion seems easy enough. I don't think you have to pussy-foot around it by getting cute with the description.
  17. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

    If I am going to describe skin color I usually do it in comparison to something close at hand. So if someone's wearing a bracelet of goldstone beads I might describe their skin colour in relationship to that or if someone's holding a porcelain cup I might say something like "she held the porcelain cup, her hands twin shadows cradling a cloud" (not a good example but you get the idea) I use anything on hand mostly, even food if its there.
  18. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    I feel like I've never really felt a dearth of descriptives sticking to the usual suspects...amber, bronze, copper, ochre, umber, mahogany, ebony, tawny, dusky, nut-brown, fawn-brown, olive-brown, etc etc.

    @DOTA, I do think there is a lack of the ingrained, archetypal associations of beauty for images describing darker skin, as a function of inherited language in literature and particularly genre lit, but.... On the other hand, who really wants to stick to describing skin like porcelain and alabaster and those dang gemstone eyes? If you stop looking for "pretty" imagery that follows those exact same lines, there's plenty out there.

    You can describe bronze statues and burnished wood, wine-dark or sloe-dark eyes, sunlight on a shallow stream, gleaming pottery, the brown of ancient ink or autumn leaves or copper jewelry or yes, the red-brown of freshly-tilled earth or the dark richness of forest loam. There are as many connotations as there are words out there, and a great deal depends on context. What is a positive association for the POV character? Not everyone thinks in terms of riches and artwork.

    Also, I feel like it would be very odd if someone described color every time they thought of their lover's skin. You do want to make it clear to avoid white-by-default, but after the reader has the correct image, you can of course use the usual skin descriptives without prefacing it with color: warm, soft, smooth, supple, yielding... Alright, I'll take my purple thesaurus ass out of here.
    Night Gardener and Heliotrope like this.
  19. I would use descriptors like forest loam or freshly tilled earth or riverbank clay, because those are positive associations for me as a nature lover...but would those be positive associations for others? Am I overthinking this?

    And the majority of characters won't be described in terms of skin color, but some characters are just going to be around for a long time and are really important to the story, so I want to describe them well. Honestly, if I don't say otherwise readers are going to assume them to be white, and I don't want that, because I don't picture them that way.

    In my world, being white isn't that common. It's a tropical climate so it's not very useful. The majority of people have skin that is some shade of brown. In fact, later in the story the characters come across a village led by a young woman with red hair and they're fascinated by it because they've never seen that color hair before. Everyone's hair, practically, is brown or black.

    I don't see the purpose in describing my POV characters, since they narrate in the first person and why would they describe themselves...?
    Night Gardener likes this.
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I think descriptors relating to coffee, or caramel, or chocolate, or what have you are so overused to have become cliche , and they're often used in a way that doesn't even seem to me to be accurate (e.g. a story where "caramel" was used to describe a black person's skin), in other words they're just bad writing. Getting beyond that into ideas of colonialism, racism, dominance, subjugation, and the like seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. Have there been academic studies building an argument for these connections, or are these just ideas that people have tossed out? There are situations, as with any cliche, where one might use some terms, and I'm not seeing a lot of support for the colonialism and other ideas in my brief Google search for them, just a lot of people stating those views as opinions (but using language that suggests they aren't opinions). Maybe someone can provide a reference....

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