Whitey Whiterson writes PoC skin tones …

Points to consider for writers describing people of color

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.

A chart from Colette’s article.

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:

  1. Are you aware (or made aware) that a particular description can piss off your readers?
  2. Can you change that description to something else without altering your story in a significant manner?
  3. If you answer “yes” to #2, then change the description.
  4. Profit.

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.

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Comments

  1. Caitlyn Lynch

    I just read a book where the heroine was working for a charity assisting the Roma people. All well and good; the marginalized group was addressed with respectful terms until about halfway through, when the author suddenly started calling them ‘gypsies’.

    Now, I don’t know if you know this, but to the Roma using the word ‘gypsy’ is as offensive as using the N word to describe someone who is Black. A Black person can use the N word; other people can’t without being racist. Same with the Roma and ‘gypsy’.

    I’m afraid I lost my temper and left the author a very sharp 1* review (that wasn’t the ONLY reason, she was barely scraping 2* anyway). You can read the review on my site if you like (it’s Triple Princes by Cassandra Dee).

    The point I’m trying to make, though, is that it’s important to do your research. The author knew SOME things about the Roma, but apparently hadn’t delved deeply enough to learn that using the term ‘gypsy’ is absolutely unacceptable. You didn’t know too much about the fetishizing connotations of using food terms to describe PoC; now you do, because you’ve done your research.

  2. Roxanne

    Thanks for this post. I have a few characters of color in my books from spanish to asian, and i never know how to describe them. I hate to say, but I think I may have used food to do so, not thinking it could be offensive. Now that I see this, I will be going back and examining my character descriptions more closely when I edit my book in December. It is now with my editor, so I will make sure she keeps an eye out for me.

    I stumbled upon your blog on bookbloggerlist.com and this article caught my eye. I was originally going to email you and see if you’d like to be a Quillity Blogger and decided to stop and read this article first. I will still be emailing you, so please keep an eye out for it.

    Thanks so much for the tip!

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      Roxanne: I’m happy this post helps you a bit. Keeping track of what is offensive is a difficult, as in today’s culture it seems to change every day. Still, this is a simple element to consider and easily fixable without changing core elements of your work.

  3. Akariel

    One final thought: If Mark Twain had re-gone back through his works and changed them to be more sensitive- would his work have been improved?
    Personally, I think it would sterilize and remove much of what makes writing and story telling so important.

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      Akariel: That’s a bit of a false comparison, as Twain’s language usage at the time was probably accepted as non-inflammatory. It is only in historical retrospect that Twain’s work is cast in the negative (I’m generalizing here, not an expert).

      And the point here isn’t about being more or less sensitive, it about business — if you are aware that some reader are deeply offended by a word or phrase, and you can substitute another word or phrase without changing the meaning or essence of your work, it’s smart business to avoid pissing off those customers.

      Again, if making the change doesn’t alter your meaning or story, then I advise making the change. If you have words you feel are critical to your story, then you should choose to keep them.

  4. Akariel

    My Mexican ex-girlfriend use to call me vanilla all the time- I didn’t feel objectified.
    However lumping in people as “PoC”, an all encompassing nebulous collective – then assuming to speak for all of them as if they all think the same thing; As if their all in one hive mind seems like it would be awfully demeaning and condescending- such as what your editor has done.

    There is a distinction from getting the opinions of people who have had different experiences from your own, then assuming people you don’t know have had those experiences.
    Outside this one edit, have you ever had someone who was black come up to you and say they found you using the descriptor of “caramel” for a particular shade as fetishistic or offensive? Or is your editor creating problems where they don’t exist based upon ideological reasoning?
    Would it then be wrong to describe a white person as pasty- for the reason that it would demean white people? If not, then where is the fundamental principle of making this change drawn from. If you are going to start treating people differently based on their skin tone, either for good or bad intentions, then that has some pretty heavy implications.
    It seems to me to be more so a form of discriminatory Infantilization.
    The thing about micro-aggressive language ( because that is what is being implied by your new editor ) is the issue is not just with the person speaking it, it is also with the person perceiving it. Offense is rarely intended, and more often simply received but it is important to recognize that as a two way street- and to assume what a group of people might think based solely on their skin colour is to assume that you know better what is good for them.

    Now.
    With that being said, as a writer having multiple ways of saying the same thing differently should always be taken into account.
    If the changes make reading it a more enjoyable experience, make more sense or appeal themselves towards your own artistic judgement and expression then THAT is the reason you should change it. Not because you feel morally bad about the original when you honestly shouldn’t. That’s my two cents on the issue at least.

  5. Profile photo of Muddy_JunkieMuddy_Junkie

    I absolutely get the end result of your final formula. It makes total sense to me that if it doesn’t change the story, it’s not a big deal. On the other hand, I can’t seem to get past the rolling of my eyes at the easily offended mentality.

    I have read that the human eye can distinguish something like 10 million colors. And with your books and so many others, words are used to not just convey the basic facts, you create a mental image that helps transport the reader into the scene you are writing. Caramel does a better job of conveying not just a color, but the shade of that color than light brown. Would it have been ok to use “burnt sienna” or “copper”? Does the Tumblr post and the concept in general only have an issue with using food as the descriptor?

    I get it, like you, I am whitey whiterson so in general, at least as far as I can tell, my opinion on this doesn’t really seem to matter on this subject.

    I dunno FDO, maybe it is the “sensual” nature of the line that is more problematic to your editor? You had a different editor with Alive right? Did that editor bring up you using “caramel” and “olive” to describe skin tones?

    In the end, like I said, I’m gonna read your awesome works. I just think that people who look to be offended always will be.

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      Jason: I think the main problem is with food items. As described by her post, it’s the “I’d like a bite of that chocolate” concept that reduces people to objects, objects to be coveted and obtained. I don’t think anyone would have issues with “copper” or “burnt sienna,” but then again, it never occurred to me there would be a problem with “caramel.”

      You’re right about one thing — in today’s environment, someone is going to be actively offended by whatever I write. I’ve been dealing with it for years now. I do what I can to mitigate the problem, but it’s always going to be there to some degree.