Did you know that certain skin tone descriptions can piss some people right the fuck off?
We contracted a new editor to do the copyedit for my scifi/thriller EARTHCORE (out Nov. 29 in print, eBook and audiobook). This editor did a solid job. She’s quickly getting the hang of my particular style and the Siglerverse as well (if you’re new to my work, most of my stories are in the same continuum). She’s currently doing my next short story collection, FIRE IS ORANGE, and also THE REEF, a GFL novella.
But back to the topic of pissing people off. As the editor was working on EARTHCORE, she came across this phrase:
He started out of bed but stopped when a hand with long, purple fingernails lightly scraped his back. He turned to see Chloe smiling up at him, her caramel skin beautiful against the white sheets, her lush lips slightly parted, her black eyes glinting with sex.
“He,” in this scene, is Sonny McGuiness, who is black. At this point in the book, he’s already been described. Chloe is also black, but in my mind her skin is a lighter hue than Sonny’s.
My editor highlighted that above example and put in this note:
Reconsider using food to describe skin color; considered offensive by some. See for example: http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/skin-writing-with-color-has-received-several
Yes, that is a link to a Tumblr blog. Yes, I know Tumblr is a place well populated by the Easily Offended. Regardless of where the linked content lives, it was a great read and I learned a ton. The post educated me on how PoCs (that’s “people of color,” if you’re new to that phrase) feel about this subject. The post is an excellent writer’s resource.
I think I had a vague recollection that certain skin tone descriptions could be construed as offensive, but since EARTHCORE’s first draft was written some 20 years ago the “caramel colored” phrase may have long passed into the zone of “I’ve read this 8,592 times and I don’t even see it for what it is anymore.” The editor’s note brought the concept back to the front of my mind.
My first reaction to my editor’s note? Pretty much this: “Oh, give me a fucking break.” I mean, caramel brings to mind a very specific color, much more so than, say, “brown.” In this Age of Perpetual Outrage, should I really worry about a word that describes an actual real color as being offensive?
My second reaction? Take a breath, read the link, see if it’s a valid point or if it’s just an overreaction. I can’t know until I read it for myself, right? And I’m paying her to do a job — if I don’t consider her points, what the hell am I paying her for in the first place?
So I read the suggested post by Mod Colette, on the “Writing With Color” blog. I didn’t agree with everything Colette wrote, which is fine, because she isn’t asking everyone to agree with her — she’s giving information that many writers haven’t thought of. In particular, she points out naming a PoC’s skin tone after a food item is “fetishizing.” In her words:
It can get extremely uncomfortable, being or witnessing Black people and other PoC being compared to food, even as a “compliment.”
“I love me some chocolate men.” “Your skin’s like mocha latte.” “I wanna piece of that chocolate.”
See how often these comparisons are connected to some sensual desire? As if people of Color are food to consume?
This frequent comparison to cocoa and such just in time to highlight some kinky craving is not just grounds of a fetish, it’s dehumanizing.
When I use the word caramel, does that mean I’m “fetishizing” black women? No. Does it mean that to most writers who would use the word? I feel safe to say that’s not the case with the vast, vast majority of authors. The examples she lists above are clearly sexual in nature, and in them, the “kinky craving” is clear. These are loaded examples meant to prove her point, and quite distinctly separate from simply referring to a particular bit of food because that bit of food instantly calls to mind a particular shade of brown.
But — and this is a big “but” — that’s easy for me to say. Easy because I’m not a woman of color, and as such, I don’t hear shit like that directed at me. Not ever. I don’t even get “hey, baby, I’d like to get me some of that slightly pinkish vanilla you got going on there” or “you look like a big bowl of mashed potatoes I’d love to douse in butter and eat right up.” Hell, I’ve never even been compared to a nice glass of milk that someone wants to chugalug.
And also, notice that the above lines aren’t really something people use to hit on or describe white women? In my experience, at least, Colette has a point — describing skin tone with food items seems to be primarily used for people of color.
Those lines she listed coming from a character’s mouth as dialogue are one thing; the use of questionable words and phrases can actually help position that character’s outlook, help create what kind of a person they are in the reader’s mind. Some characters are total motherfuckers and they have to say/do shit things because that’s what shit characters say and do. The same lines used in exposition, however, are most often attributed to the author, not the character.
Which means, Dear Author Pal, the choice to use them or not is up to you.
This is also one of those things many writers don’t think about when banging away on a manuscript. I mean, come on, you envision your character as having skin the color of caramel, so you describe him as having “caramel colored skin.” What’s the harm, amirite? Fuck Tumblr, you know?
Maybe you think there’s no actual harm in using the the word you want. And no harm, no foul, right? This is where you might be wrong, sirs and/or ma’ams. The “foul,” in this case, comes in alienating some of your potential book-buying customer base.
Aren’t you in this business to sell books?
I know I am.
Should you constantly be on the lookout for things that offend potential readers? No, you shouldn’t. Even professional writers don’t have that kind of time, and if you’re writing in addition to your day job (and kids, and spouse, etc.), then there’s no way you can invest the endless hours needed to track who is now offended by what.
However, if you do learn about something that can piss off your readers, and that something is easy to fix, and that easy fix makes no difference to your story, then, yes, you should consider changing it.
This is one of those things that is by no means “required” for writers to do, be the writers Whitey Whiterson, PoC or anything else. It’s your book — you can describe things as you see fit. I believe first and foremost in the creator’s vision. If we remove all the naughty words and the definition of what’s “naughty” changes seemingly every friggin’ week, we’ll cripple ourselves as storytellers.
That said, if changing a word has no impact on the story, then what’s the harm in changing it? That’s what I did, below:
He started out of bed but stopped when a hand with long, purple fingernails lightly scraped his back. He turned to see Chloe smiling up at him, her light-brown skin beautiful against the white sheets, her lush lips slightly parted, her black eyes glinting with sex.
Does that read any different to you? Your reader brain still applies a particular skin color to that character, and that color doesn’t matter, because the character is different in the mind of every single reader. Hell, when you read the paragraph, you may have missed entirely that I replaced “caramel.” If so, think about that — zero change to the story, and I avoid potentially alienating my numerous PoC readers.
In Part II of Colette’s article, she offered an extensive list of alternate words to describe shades of brown. Those included “umber,” “ochre,” “russet” and “terra-cotta.” Like I know what the fuck what color “umber” is? I don’t, so I will avoid it. Her list might help you, but be careful of using color words that most people wouldn’t know (when someone has to stop reading your book to google what color “fawn” is, they are taken out of your story, and that’s a bad thing).
Part II of her article also includes a really extensive list of links to more thoughts on this subject and more wordy resources for your writing. Check it out.
My final formula is this:
- Are you aware (or made aware) that a particular description can piss off your readers?
- Can you change that description to something else without altering your story in a significant manner?
- If you answer “yes” to #2, then change the description.
If you’ve never heard of this topic before, now you have. Your story is important — and so are your readers. Don’t sacrifice your artistic vision, but try to empathize with people in general, and especially the people who will pay their hard earned money for your work.