Writing with Color has received several asks on this topic.
Everything from “how do I describe my character’s skin tone without being offensive?” and “what’s the problem with comparing my character to chocolate and coffee?”
I’m hoping to address all these and likewise questions in this guide on describing POC skin color, from light, dark and all that’s in between.
The Food Thing: So what’s the big deal?
So exactly what is the problem with comparing POC skin tone to cocoa, coffee, caramel, brown sugar and other sweets and goods? Well, there’s several potential problems you come across when you pull out the old Hershey’s bar comparison for your dark-skinned character, even if offense is not your intention.
Diversity isn’t just about race. It’s about culture and heritage. Great discussion here.
Race is not just a color, race is about culture, ethnicity, religion, family background, heritage, history.
That’s why it is not enough, Wellmeaning Clueless White Person, to take a character, say they’re brown skinned and continue writing them exactly as you’d write a white character and think you’ve done due dilligence. As N.K. Jemisin said herself (in comments):“I don’t walk around constantly thinking “Hey, I’m black today. Blackitty blackitty black…”, but being black informs nearly every part of my daily existence. Where I choose to live (generally communities with a certain percentage of black people in the population, so I won’t be alone), what clothes I wear (earth tones look good on me; pastels do not), what foods I grow in my balcony garden (my collard greens have aphids! ::wail::), how I wear my hair (hmm, a blowout today, I think. Nah, it’s Saturday, I’ll just put it up in a puff), etc.”
We white people have been fooled into thinking that white is a base, a state of normalcy, that it is not it’s own ethnicity.
Apple pie is an ethnic food. Country-western music is an ethnic music. My name (Megan) is an ethnic name. It’s just that my ethnicity, my race, has dominance, gets treated like the norm, the standard. But it doesn’t make it any less an ethnicity.
My race also infuses and informs every part of my daily existence, just as Ms. Jemisin’s does her.
If there is no India, there is no Indian character.
Just to clarify, using someone’s nationality to describe their appearance isn’t effective. These women are all from India:
Would you say they all look the same? Can you point out to me which physical characteristics they have in common that the word “Indian” might describe? Me neither.
If it were me, I would just describe what they look like and leave nationality out of it altogether. Describe their apparent gender and age, their skin, their face shape, their nose and lips and teeth and eyes; their hair, their hands, their height and weight, their clothing and adornment. Maybe you think of a picture of them in your head and describe that, or else find a person or a few people who look sort of like your character and describe them. Sometimes it helps to have a reference. Maybe your reference is someone from India, but that doesn’t necessarily make that character’s appearance “Indian.”
Thanks for your question, and I hope this helps!
EDIT: Here, have the Wikipedia page for Historical definitions of races in India. That might be helpful.
Anonymous asked: Do you have any tips on describing an overweight poc?
(This answer is under a read more for reasons of foul language and general snarkiness. If you’d rather not see C get sassy, do not click the read more link. Thanks. -C)
When a character’s skin color is not described in Western literature, readers automatically assume this character is white. Even when characters are described as having dark skin, some readers, for whatever reason, see them as white and get upset when visual depictions defy what they want to see.
By saying that a character’s skin color needs to be essential to the plot to be described, you are saying that only white characters are worthy of having stories that don’t have anything to do with racism, racial identity, and other issues related to race and colorism. It’s not that hard to say your character isn’t white. Their ethnic and/or racial background does not need to tie into the plot for them to exist.
Including different ethnicities (within one race) is diversity, but it is ethnic diversity. It’s not racial diversity. They are two different things.
What is cultural appropriation?
It’s difficult to talk about appropriation because it is deeply tied to racial representation in fiction, and I can’t speak of one without the other. A common definition is: the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. The culture that borrows and appropriates is usually dominant over the one that is borrowed from. Examples include high-class Europeans having foreign art objects, and people who get hanzi tattoos with grammar mistakes or just because they “look cool”. But it extends to far more than that. It is the attitude that suggests non-white cultures are to be shared, delighted in, and open to all to use as influences or create characters. It is blackface, yellowface, redface, brownface, that rob minorities of the right to express their stories, the way they want, and reduces them to a footnote. It is what leads certain writers to say “but everyone has the right to a story!”
Anonymous asked: At one point in my story a character of color is assaulted and nearly dies. He is saved, however, by a white character. How can I write this without treading into White Savior territory?
The first step is knowing that you can easily fall into writing the White Savior cliche. I see that you are aware of this, though I still recommend that you read TVTropes’ posts on Mighty Whitey and White Man’s Burden. You might also read Does My Hero Look White In This: Hollywood’s White Saviour Complex by Katherine Kingsle.
I think what’s important is that you write a person helping another person, not a character who is white saving a character of color. The character of color doesn’t need saving because they are not white, right? Even if they’re assaulted for being a person of color, they don’t need saving because, owing to their non-whiteness, they cannot otherwise help themselves… right? Well, then don’t write that!
I think there must be a sense of agency from the perspective of the character of color. If the character of color is hopeless or too “overcome by their own prejudices and circumstances to help themselves” (x) and requires the white character to swoop in all idealized and shiny to save the character of color from their problems, then you’ve got a White Savior situation on your hands. Time for a rewrite.
Also, this rescue scene might take refining from you during the editing process. You might want to have some of your non-white writer friends take a look at it for potentially problematic writing.
I’m sure other writers will want to weigh in on this topic with their own tips and resources. We will add any helpful comments we receive to this post.
Thank you for your question!
Anonymous asked: How would you describe a Chinese girl’s physical appearance, specifically eyes and skin tone? I have heard describing her eyes as almond is offensive and leads to the belief that is prevalent in some Asian countries that their eyes are not good enough or beautiful, but I also don’t want to exotic-ise them. I also have poor colour perception but know my readers probably won’t, otherwise would have looked at colour swatches. Thank you
I’d start looking for Chinese people from the region of your story’s setting who would be willing to help you out with your research. Once you’ve found a few takers, politely ask them how they would describe themselves.
If you’re writing from an outsider’s perspective—that is, you’re writing not as the Chinese girl character but from the viewpoint of a non-Chinese or perhaps non-East Asian character—you might do research on how people of your viewpoint character’s culture and time period describe(d) Chinese people who look like your Chinese girl character.
And another thing: “almond-shaped” can be offensive to some, but keep in mind that not everyone takes offense to the same things. My issue with “almond-shaped” as a descriptor for what has also been termed “Asian eyes” (also a super vague and inadequate descriptor, in my opinion) is that an almond shape to the eye is one of the most common eye shapes across all races in the whole world. In my opinion, my eyes are almond-shaped, and I’m not Chinese or even East Asian.
And this descriptor has only become even more ineffectual as it has grown into a cliche. It’s just not all that helpful a term. If you feel you must describe the shape of your Chinese character’s eyes, I suggest you find another way. As with everywhere else in the world, there is a wide spectrum of diversity in eye shape among Chinese people. Luckily, there are lots of resources online with listed terms for describing eye shape and plenty of people with these eye shapes whose opinions you could ask. Google and enjoy!
The comments section of this NPR article offers up an interesting discussion on the topic of East Asian eye shape. Have a look.
As far as skin color goes—again, this characteristic can vary widely. You would need to research time period, region, and social class at the very least to help pinpoint the most likely skin colors of your Chinese girl character.
The viewpoint character is also important here. If the viewpoint character is a white guy, for example, he might describe your Chinese girl character’s skin as darker or browner (or perhaps not, depending) or smoother or less freckled than his own. If the Chinese girl herself is the viewpoint character, then others would be darker or lighter or tanner or browner or pinker or milkier or fairer or whiter or more wrinkled or less blemished or whatever-er compared to her. Do you see what I mean?
Skin color is not as simple as brown or not brown and then a variance of darker to lighter. Skin has tones. It has many colors, blemishes, and scars. It can be hairy or smooth or cracked and dry or shiny or beaded with sweat or lined or tired-looking or freckled or colored with a blush or drained of color or sallow or firm or supple.
Countries and cultures are not made up of clones. People are distinct, and that distinction is worth noting. There is nuance in all things, and it’s your job as a writer to capture it.
Thanks for your question! If any of our followers have suggestions for the anon, feel free to comment on this post or send us a message!
Thank you! I want to reiterate that the use of “almond-shaped” to describe people with certain eye shapes is a matter of preference. Some people take offense to it, others don’t care. I find it to be as cliched as it is ineffectual in its ambiguity. Ah well.
I don’t like to use words like “generally” when speaking of populations as large as China’s (over 1.3 billion in 2013), but I appreciate the benefit of your opinion. “Single-lidded” eyes are certainly common in China and throughout East Asia, as are “double-lidded” eyes and eyes that fall somewhere in between (yes, there is a spectrum to be found here as well).
"Food" descriptions, or the use of words like "chocolate" or "honey" to describe skin tone, can be offensive to some, similarly to the use of "almond"—also a food—to describe eye shape. Whatever words you use, anon, be sure that you are describing your character as you wish her to be represented after careful research and consideration on your part of both your style and your audience. That’s the most anyone can hope for from a writer: thoughtfulness.
Anyway, thank you to metaphoricaluniverse for their reply!
Again, I’m uncomfortable with using that word “generally” to describe over 1.3 billion people, but thank you so much for taking the time to provide your point of view! I am sure the anon will find your perspective helpful!
A quick little thing that ended up being neither quick nor little, for an anon who asked how I do skin colors.
As usual, I’m not a professional, this is just how I do things. Hope I answered your question!
PoC means “people of color” or “person of color”. It basically describes any person or group of people that is non-white.
Thanks for your question!