Describing characters of color

I've been aware for a while now of the penchant that many white writers have for using food metaphors to describe brown skin colors. But what I haven't often seen is a good discussion of how to do it better. (I vaguely think there's a discussion of this in Writing the Other, but my copy is packed away at the moment.)

So I was very pleased just now to come across a set of useful posts on this and related topics:

  • A couple months ago, N K Jemisin provided some of the descriptions she's written and some other helpful notes. (She prefaces her list with this: "Not a claim of correctness or The Best Way or anything of the sort. Just my way.") Several other writers chime in in comments with some of their own descriptions. N also briefly discusses things other than skin color that can indicate culture or ethnicity; see below for more on that.
  • Also back in April, zvi provided an excellent discussion of skin color comparisons in fiction, especially in sex scenes in fanfic.
  • A couple days ago, afro_dyte started a great thread asking for "words, similes, and metaphors we can use to describe Uhura's complexion." The primary focus here is Trek fic (see below), but it's a useful discussion for anyone wanting to describe skin colors.
  • In addition to skin color, there are a lot of other ways to indicate culture and ethnicity in fictional characters. Afro_dyte posted last week about Spock and ethnic body language: "how can culture and ethnicity be conveyed through body language? And by body language I also include shibboleths that take into account pronunciation and even the octave of speech."

(I need to provide some context so y'all won't go into those last couple of links expecting something other than what they are: the uhuranspock4foc LJ is explicitly a community for fans of color and about Uhura/Spock relationship fanfic, not a general place for discussion of race, racism, writing, etc. I found a bunch of the posts there fascinating and helpful to me personally, but the idea isn't to educate people like me, it's for the participants to have a place to talk about this stuff that can avoid the racefail of (for example) a certain recent discussion of Uhura's straight hair.)

Here are a couple of other indirectly relevant posts that I came across while looking at the above:

3 Responses to “Describing characters of color”

  1. Catherine

    Huh, interesting re: food metaphors–isn’t that the primary way to describe white skin tones as well (peachy, creamy, blushing like a strawberry or a tomato)? I see “golden” and “copper” and “brown” and “pink” and “pale” a lot, too, of course. And “jet” when people mean really dark brown. So I’d say the second most popular category, after food (and excluding plain old colors) is minerals/stones. I see things like “marble”.

  2. Alan Kellogg

    Just to be different.

    She had skin the hue of rich Iowa loam.

  3. macgmini

    Thesis: The description of people of color is a difficult one even within the racial community, not to mention adding a cultural layer on top. This is what necessitates the use of inorganic standards (biological entities have entirely too much diversity).
    –If we use the Black community for example: If you are Black, your particular genetic hue, degree of yellows, reds, etc. will determine your subjective outlook. My skin tone is “paper-bag-brown” (greasy-paper-bag-brown in the summer months). Who I would hypothetically call “light-skinned”, “dark-skinned”, “brown-skin’d”, “red-bone”, “high-yellar”, “pink-toes” and probably many others I’ve never heard of – is subjectively compared to my own shade. The closer to my shade, the greater the ambiguity with these cultural terms. So, the Black person who I am speaking to subconsciously takes all of that into consideration. We then will, refer to a person known to both of us that has the requisite shade, or even ourselves and add a qualifier of “a little lighter/darker than”.
    –NOTE PLEASE, the above descriptors are Slavery-Era descriptors. They were initially imposed and now are accepted into common word usage; AND YET, we don’t get our noses out of joint when we use them in common speech. Yet a food reference, a mineral reference, an inanimate object reference – THINGS, items that have no emotional charge (unless you call someone shit-colored >;) are decried. I see an incongruence here, a HUH, WTF. This is literature, simile is used; it is not ALWAYS metaphor or allegory, (and sometimes it is). If you want the plot, the story, the characterization, the fun, the love of eating a godsdammed good SF, spec F, Fantasy, What If, then You Must Continue To Use The One Thing, That Intrinsic Part Of Your Personality That Allows You To Love These Genre,and To Eat, Live And Die For The Update.


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