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Describing POC's Skin...

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

  1. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    I think it would be strange if you described white characters in terms of marble or alabaster and then described brown characters as earth, but if it's not weirdly specific like that, and it makes sense in the eyes of a POV character who's a farmer or a nature-lover in that way, you'd probably be fine. Again, context is everything. And I meant that the imagery of other people present in the narration should fit with the associations of the POV character describing that, not that you need to describe a 1st person POV character in detail.

    Also, if there's variety in your descriptions it'll help you avoid a pitfall like that. Even if most of the characters are brown, wouldn't you be describing a range of colors regardless? In a majority-white setting we still describe a range of skin-tones--peachy, pale, sallow, tan, etc--and obviously people of color have a million undertones and shades as well. No population is so homogenous that there are no variations in skin color, particularly with sun exposure taken into account.
     
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  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I think you're over thinking this.

    Will some take offence? Sure, but there's no pleasing some.

    And as for dedaulting white, maybe it's just me, but I create my own image of characters based on their feel, regardless of how many descriptors you give. If the character feels white then I see a white character in my head. If they feels Chinese then that's what I see.
     
  3. Peat

    Peat Sage

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    My google search found nothing either.

    I can see the fetishistic angle and god knows its cliche as all get out - although what doesn't get fetishised and there's so many more cliche descriptors - but as you say, the slavery link seems weird to me.
     
  4. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    I'm not sure the colonialism arguments are the strongest, but I can see the connections there.

    Also, whenever people bring up that white characters are also sometimes described like food, I can't help but think...isn't it usually women and/or love interests described as creamy or peachy or honey-skinned? In any context, there is something weirdly sexual about it, like calling someone luscious or delicious. Like, keep it in the bedroom scene--and so often the caramel/chocolate/mocha stuff is in all sorts of scenes and genres.

    And I think that tying someone through imagery to a consumable dessert has an element of objectification or subjugation. Most of all, I don't think this issue is a blanket to cover any and all mentions of food, but to address the widespread and unthinking use of this imagery as a default or cliche. I always think it's a good idea to consider why we use the words we do, and why the first thing we think of was so readily there....
     
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale

    So out of curiosity, because I couldn't remember, I looked at the first chapter of The Archer's Heart by Astrid Amara (having it on mind because of other discussions lately), which is set in a world modeled on ancient India.

    Keshan and his brother both decided to forego the hot confines of breastplates and diadems, choosing instead to adorn themselves with strings of abalone shell and pearls from their home in Tiwari. Keshan knew very well that the lustrous beads suited his dark skin and only heightened the impact of his short, black hair and dark eyes.​

    Here, a whole image is presented, with the strings of shell and beads contrasted with "dark" skin, hair and eyes.

    Later, two men are described as having "long black hair" and another man is described as "darkly handsome." Then comes this description of another:

    The man had bright blue eyes, a rarity in Marhavad. Along with his tall body and light brown skin, the man's eyes brought an instant surge of arousal through Keshan's body. ​

    So as a whole, it seems that dark, darkly and light brown are used, with the addition of mentions of black hair and a note about the rarity of blue eyes.

    These are fairly basic descriptors, and I wonder if a general awareness of variations in skin color would naturally lead to thinking in terms of dark, darker, light, lighter more than coffee, mocha, etc. Although, if something exists behind the notation, e.g. a POV from a character with a poetic sensibility or in a state of heightened awareness (like attraction), maybe those more descriptive terms would be fine. I often think of Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem Sweeties" when this subject arises.

    Edit: I would say that, as a rule of thumb, consider how the POV character would view these things. I'm assuming a first person or limited third approach. There are reasons why a particular POV character might use a sensual and/or poetic or even derogatory description of skin color. But a POV character might be so habituated to the variations in color, he'd think in terms of lighter or darker. Or, in general think in one way but in some special circumstance might slip into a more poetic or sensual type of awareness of the skin color.
     
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2016
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  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Is Langston Hughes being critical of the use of those descriptors? That's not the sense I got from the poem.
     
  7. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    IF you are worried about the political/social implications of how you describe skin colour, and that skin colour is the equivalent of real world races, than I would recommend you read some people who do it really well and emulate them.

    Halo Hopkinson and Greg Iles spring to mind. I am sure there are a plethora of others.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    No, I think it's a sensual celebration of the diversity. Fetishizing, yes, but in a positive way.
     
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  9. SaltyDog

    SaltyDog Sage

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    I try not to compare to things or food, so far what I've down is just say a color, such as a soft brown, etc.

    In my case I have many races, (Talking about Elves, Dwarfs and other beings I created, not the skin color for us humans,) one race is very white in skin color, due to living in caves and having very little to no contact of sunlight. So I describe them that way, chalk white, and very pale. No skin morphs or different colors.

    But with my other species,(I'll be saying that since it might get a little confusing) I do have a wide variety of ethnicity, so I don't leave anyone out. I do tend to stay away from discussions like this, as it is really up to the author in what goes into his/her book, though if they plan to make money, they then should probably choose wisely.

    Anyway, each writer here has their own different way of showing what color the person is, some choose by comparing, others by there origin, of where they came from. I choose to describe as a color, brown, black, white, etc.
     
  10. SaltyDog

    SaltyDog Sage

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    I feel the same way
     
  11. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Another vote here for worrying about it too much. As a dark-skinned person, I've often referred to my skin color as caramel or cinnamon. Clearly I'm neither of those things lol. But it's kind of a romantic way of describing it if the subject should ever come up. People in my family do it. Friends of mine that have dark skin do it. Really, it's no big deal and we're not easily offended. We're just like anyone else and seriously, if you write a bomb story then who's going to care that you described a character's skin as milk chocolate?

    Far as describing characters goes, readers will pick up on what they look like from your sensory details. Think culture, personality, manner of speech, clothing and jewelry, etc. These are the things you can focus that will boost the image of characters as well rounded people. As another poster here mentioned, if you have different skin colors of characters then yes, that should be mentioned. For example, my WIP has a lead character developed from Alaska Native culture. She's got tan skin. Her husband is white. So right away I give the reader an impression of how different she is from him: skin the color of caribou hide, facial features sharp like the mountain valleys of her home, petite in stature, covered in furs, etc.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 24, 2016
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  12. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    White skin does get described as milky, or as a peach color. Peach, to me, is the name on the jar of white-skin paint, but milky does often carry a lot of connotations to it. "She (it's always a she) had milky skin" because she's never been in the sun, which makes her either pretentious or attractive or both depending on the story.

    I don't mention that to make any point in particular.

    I'm not generally a fan of internet outrage. But I think if certain words annoy people - whether you or I think they should or not - then it's a small kindness not to use them. To me it's that simple.

    I don't have a high opinion of the notion that you shouldn't mention or describe skin tone. It's your setting; they're your characters; set the scene already. I know that there's this idea that people should interpret the character how they want to. But there's a word for the first image that comes into your head with minimal prompting: It's called a stereotype.
     
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2016
  13. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

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    The thing about Writing with Colour is that the mods there know exactly what they're talking about. They live it, day in day out. And there's an awful lot of stuff that the privileged white don't realise is damaging. A lot of ingrained stuff. We don't mean to be racist, we don't set out to be, it's just society. Just look at your grandparents. Different era.

    For example, a certain g word associated with traveling societies of eastern Europe, was used in horrific ways, scarred on people and so on.. but we just don't realise about a lot of those harmful connotations.

    It's often said on that blog that if in doubt you're probably racist. At first I wasn't comfortable with that suggestion... But in a way its not too far wrong. Not being aware of problematic cultural associations, doesn't make them any less harmful. We just have to try and learn you know.

    Using food to describe poc skin is hugely problematic, and a lot of poc find it distressing (a plenty don't but..). For that reason I don't use them. In fact, I tend not to describe skin full stop. Unless I need to say pimply or ill-looking perhaps. It just doesn't seem that vital, when other things celebrate and indicate heritage, race and other cultures far far better.

    Even if it wasn't a bit racist, it's way too cliche haha there's plenty of other metaphors you could utilise besides.
     
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2016
  14. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    As far as I'm aware, there's nothing wrong with just saying 'brown' when describing black characters' skin. You can add any number of modifiers: rich brown, earthy brown, walnut brown, oak brown, etc.

    For characters coded to be middle eastern-esque in ethnicity, I've mostly ended up using metals like copper or bronze. I myself aren't qualified to say if there's anything problematic in this, but I haven't heard anything to suggest it is.

    East asian coded characters are where it perhaps gets a little trickier, since purely with regards to skin tone there isn't much separating them from northern europeans, or at least, they're similar enough that it makes description difficult when you want to explicitly present the character as east asian and not white. To be honest, I haven't written enough such characters to have a useful solution, but I do plan on having an asian coded character in my next project, so we'll see.

    One thing I think is important is that if you describe skin colour, don't just describe POC characters' skin colour; describe the white characters' skin too (unless of course the character is minor enough to not warrant an physical description). Otherwise, you're inadvertently perpetuating the idea of white being default.
     
  15. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

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    White being the default is really only a thing for white people. If you don't give me a description I'm going to default to brown, because I'm brown. Black people default to black because they're black, and so on and so forth. People tend to default to what is most familiar to them.
     
  16. SaltyDog

    SaltyDog Sage

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    That makes a lot of sense.
     
  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I think a lot of default will also occur with the setting and culture as seen in Earth history. If a character is wandering through frozen mountains with an axe in the deep north of the world... The default will tend toward pale skin.

    A character wandering through an equatorial jungle will more than likely default to a darker skin.

    If you're cruising around the countryside horseback with recurve bows and tend to collect in hordes... yeah, it's probably going to conjure up images.

    Personally I tend to write in fairly strict POV, so if the character doesn't note their color... I don't. Now, when my character meets the Lûxuns with their blue skin and feather-like hair... you bet he notes it, LOL.

    In the book I've got on the back burner, the ruling majority of the people have black skin, not brown, black. They would see brown as freaky... of course, there're also a few people running around with tusks growing out of their faces, so brown wouldn't be all that freaky, LOL. Black is black, brown is brown, white is... not very white, really, not for the most part. I have been lobster red in parts now and again, no offense to any crustaceans and their departed and eaten loved ones.
     
  18. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    In my main story I have a continent based off of Africa that has the sub Saharan-esque region where people live that in appearance would look very close to African tribes-people but the culture/architecture has been changed to add some different elements. I plan on using names familiar with the real world version of that region, for the people as well as locations, to give the needed impression.
     
  19. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I suppose my general default in word choice would be to not worry about how it reflects on the writer, but rather on how it reflects on the POV character.

    What we notice and how we describe it says a lot about us. Same with POV characters.

    Omniscient voice could throw a curve on this approach, but then again I tend to think of the narrator as a character, i.e. the storyteller. Who, in some cases, ventriloquises the characters. (Not that I use omniscient often, although I'm considering it for my latest project.)
     
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  20. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    A good editor will point out things like this if your word choice may run the risk of being insulting to certain people.
     
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