Ok, so I get asked for advice and my thoughts on a lot of things relating to diversity and representation. Lately I’ve been getting asked about the proper/authentic/least offensive way to describe or write POC characters.
There’s been a tumblr post going around about not using food as descriptors for non-white characters. Some people don’t understand why this offensive and a racist action. There’s so much to unpack in why you shouldn’t use food words as a descriptor of POC characters, that this could be a long post; but here’s trying after a disclaimer.
DISCLAIMER: I do not claim to speak for all POC, all black people, all women. This post is informed both by my personal experiences as a US born and raised black woman who has spent a lot of time discussing, writing about, talking about race, feminism and representation. Do not take this post as your get out of fuckery free card, with the claim a black woman said X so it’s ok! I will not be happy with you at all and woe unto you if you do this and try to use my words as a pass to be wrong.
Take my words as you will, understand that I, as a marginalized person have experiences that you (privileged folks reading this) do not. This is not a time or a place for well, actually in the comments. Nor is it the time or place for countering with your one black friend said Y in response to my Z. So with all that being said, here we go.
So I often get asked about describing POC accurately, authentically and the like. What follows is an excerpt of an inquiry, with no names attached as the net can be vicious. But I wanted an example. This is a great question, it wasn’t worded in a way that screams EDUCATE ME, (well not to me, but YMMV)
“…on the description of skin color/tone while avoiding anything that might end up being racist. For example, some sites I’ve checked have said to stay away from food related analogies (“caramel colored skin” for example) while others have said that describing it that way is fine. In the absence of using food related descriptors (unless that’s acceptable) what WOULD be acceptable? Or should you always stick to literal colors?”
So let’s break this down. First and foremost, do NOT describe people of colour with food words. Just no, not coffee, caramel, cafe au lait, chocolate, cinnamon, or other descriptors such as that. Let’s leave dusky off that list too, or tanned. We’re not tanned, sun kissed, toasted. We’re lovely, lovely shades of brown, you can use that word as a descriptor.
Why not you ask? I mean people like food right? Well, let me tell you a thing.
Well, to describe People of Color, going forward referenced as POC, emphasis on the PEOPLE part, at the least it is othering non-white characters in your narrative, and at the worst, you are fetishizing non-white characters by giving them exotic descriptors that don’t tell you anything about them besides they remind you of a favorite desert or your am cuppa.
It’s tied in to the dehumanization of people of color in media, in life and history. If you can imagine for a moment, (assuming you are not a POC and reading this post) how would you feel if you were always described as milky, mayonnaise, mashed potato, and other kinds of food words as stand-in’s for your skin colour? You wouldn’t would you?
I know some white people get bent out of shape when described with such words, even as inoffensive as ‘mayo’. I mean mayo isn’t a great condiment, but no one has died from being called mayo-white. So consider the weight of words, the cultural ramifications tied to describing a POC as sinful as cinnamon, luscious as dark chocolate, or worse, tying food descriptors to moments of intimacy in a work.
I’ve seen too many people describe fair skinned POC (assuming they actually are writing them as a POC) as lapped up like cafe au lait, devoured like a chocolate bar, etc etc. Just stop. Additionally, it’s tired, it’s cliched and shows me you can’t play with words well enough to come up with a new way to describe people. It’s laziness, and if you as a writer can’t come up with something better, it makes me wonder about the rest of your word crafting.
Secondly, there are plenty of ways to describe POC with words like brown, dark brown, light brown, sandy brown, so many words that can be used to describe us that don’t need to be related to food, again it’s delicious but we’re not edible. We’re people, people! That would like some depth in our descriptions. We’re not coffee brown either, considering coffee can be had from a milky white with enough extra cream to a very, very, dark black. We also don’t taste or smell like chocolate, coffee, or cinnamon. No person does, even if they work in a coffee factory with a chocolate shoppe across the way.
Third, and it might seem repetitive but this is important. Do the work, look to authors you feel have done character description well and learn from how they do it. Look up resources on writing the other, especially if you get a second or hell a third set of eyes on your work and get feedback on the descriptions. Or use Google, it’s there for a reason. It’s a SEARCH engine, so search things. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus bookmarked for your use.
That doesn’t mean use 10 dollar words and three paragraphs to lovingly attempt a non-racist description of your POC characters. A few words will always do instead of purple, flowy, overdone prose. Lastly, ask a POC to review your work. If you don’t have any POC friends that’s another matter for a different post. But if you don’t have someone you can trust to review your work? Pay someone to do so, because this is one of those free emotional labor things we often get asked to do.
Speaking of resources, here’s a few to get you started:
10 Great Resources for Writing Cross Culturally (which has it’s own listing of good resources)
Relevant to this post: Writing with Color Tumblr: Description Guide, Part I – Food descriptions
Writing with Color tumblr: Description Guide, Part II – Describing Skin Tone
Writing the Other: A Practical Approach- Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward
Writing the Other workshops – Nisi Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford Brownpaper tickets. Check their sites for up to date schedule and availability