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View Full Version : If White Characters Were Described Like POC in Literature (Buzzfeed article)



slhuang
07-06-2015, 07:47 AM
An old article, but I did a search and it didn't come up, and it made me laugh so much I had to share:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/if-white-characters-were-described-like-people-of-color-in-l#.vflKMnp6p

Perks
07-06-2015, 07:55 AM
"Marzipan shoulder" killed me. I resemble that remark.

slhuang
07-06-2015, 08:23 AM
"Marzipan shoulder" killed me.

OMG, me too!! I think that one was my favorite. :greenie

UnluckyClover77
07-06-2015, 05:55 PM
LOL. I never understood racial stereotypes.

Also, this:

"I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade — coffee, chocolate, brown sugar. There’s some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that." N.K. Jemisin

EMaree
07-06-2015, 06:21 PM
That was *glorious*.

Marian Perera
07-06-2015, 06:30 PM
I once read a blurb which described the heroine's "mocha-colored legs" wrapped around the hero's "cream-colored hips".

I said, "They made a frappucino-colored baby" and went in search of better blurbs.

The Weaver
07-06-2015, 07:19 PM
This is a thing of beauty it needs to be shared. "Supple, cauliflower skin" needs to be in a book at least once lol

Brutal Mustang
07-06-2015, 09:29 PM
This list is hilarious. And horrible.

However, writers should never be shamed for blatantly saying their character is of another race (or female). Sadly, white [male] with brown hair is the default in most reader's minds. Personally, if I write this amazing, complex black heroine, I want the reader to know she's black, and not whitewash her in their minds. I wouldn't even want to hint at race, like mention she's got an Afro or cornrows, or what have you; some readers (like myself) are dense, and will still not get it ... they'll see a white person with an Afro or cornrows. Best just to blatantly say they're black. Or Asian. Or whatever.

Case in point, I remember how some Harry Potter readers made a fuss when the movies came out, and Cho was Asian.

Vegetarian Cannibal
07-07-2015, 01:41 AM
"Her eyes were radiant and her skin glowed with mozzarella undertones."
"...his fine, tall-person, handsome features, and his crust of a Shepherd's pie complexion."
"...on her mayonnaise legs."

Mayonnaise legs. No shade, there. Haha!

I've had cover artists totally misrepresent the race/look of my character even when I flat out tell them in all caps: NOT WHITE! NOT WHITE! And still, they slap a white girl on my book cover. Or they completely cut off her body and just show her legs...in stockings.

To say I hate the book industry (as a POC who writes POC MCs) is a gross understatement. Jesus.

kuwisdelu
07-07-2015, 03:55 AM
I know I have some embarrassing descriptions of white characters from my high school writing. Will have to see if I can find some tomorrow.

Cyia
07-07-2015, 04:08 AM
8. His body had the color and shape of raw ground beef.

So, he's a bumpy, uneven heap of blood red, mottled through with grey and white.

Dude, see a doctor. STAT.

slhuang
07-07-2015, 04:13 AM
So, he's a bumpy, uneven heap of blood red, mottled through with grey and white.

Dude, see a doctor. STAT.

That's exactly what I think when I see some of those descriptions of POC, lolol.

Tbf, it's also what I think when people are described as "ivory" and "poreless" . . . (GOOD GOD YOU NEED PORES TO LIVE QUICK SOMEONE HELP THIS PERSON)

Roxxsmom
07-07-2015, 04:31 AM
I rather like the crust of a shepherd's pie complexion. I want to work with that one.

I did once describe a white character as having a face the color of boiled ham. What's amazing is how many commenters are bending over backwards to justify or minimize the issue of exoticizing food descriptions. I guess there are still a dozen or so people out there who haven't gotten the memo that PoC find this tedious at best, offensive at worst, so they're tossing an occasional "peaches and cream" complexion out there as an example of how everyone is really treated the same.

Oh, and the obligatory, "Most people in western countries are white, so of course white is the default" guy showed up too.

The hardest thing about writing in a secondary world where there's no Asia, Africa etc., when I'm not shooting for a fantasy counterpart culture (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FantasyCounterpartCulture) approach to my world building, is also not falling into the "ambiguously brown or olive skin" trope. I have one character who looks like he's from east Asia (if he were from our world), one who looks like she's from India, or possibly the middle East, and one who is of mixed ancestry, one parent from the same country as the previous character and one from an area where people look more European. All three have dark brown hair and eyes and skin that falls on the olive to light brown spectrum, yet they're not the same racially or culturally.

Aside from introducing their countries of origin and their different cultural norms as early as possible, and differentiating skin tone a bit (amber/tawny, light brown, and olive), I don't really know how to describe their features so the reader gets a clear image of their racial features aside from the "ambiguously brown (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AmbiguouslyBrown)" trope. I mentioned long eyes for one of the characters, but I don't even know if most readers will know what that means. One thing about the old "almond eyes" descriptor, inaccurate and cliched as it was, it immediately told readers that the character in question looked like he or she came from Asia.

UnluckyClover77
07-07-2015, 05:26 AM
The hardest thing about writing in a secondary world where there's no Asia, Africa etc., when I'm not shooting for a fantasy counterpart culture (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FantasyCounterpartCulture) approach to my world building, is also not falling into the "ambiguously brown or olive skin" trope. I have one character who looks like he's from east Asia (if he were from our world), one who looks like she's from India, or possibly the middle East, and one who is of mixed ancestry, one parent from the same country as the previous character and one from an area where people look more European. All three have dark brown hair and eyes and skin that falls on the olive to light brown spectrum, yet they're not the same racially or culturally.

Aside from introducing their countries of origin and their different cultural norms as early as possible, and differentiating skin tone a bit (amber/tawny, light brown, and olive), I don't really know how to describe their features so the reader gets a clear image of their racial features aside from the "ambiguously brown (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AmbiguouslyBrown)" trope. I mentioned long eyes for one of the characters, but I don't even know if most readers will know what that means. One thing about the old "almond eyes" descriptor, inaccurate and cliched as it was, it immediately told readers that the character in question looked like he or she came from Asia.

I don't think you have to give the reader a comparison with real-world races, since it's a fantasy setting, but if you want to you should focus on the features where that difference is more pronounced. Instead of saying they all have brown hair, focus on the texture of the hair, for example. Some features like eyebrows, eyelids, eye size, cheek bones and jaws should differ greatly between the first two characters. The third one may be a bit more tricky, but I guess it would make more sense for him to have lighter skin and/or eyes, just for the sake of differentiation.
It would be nice if you can give us a feel of entirely made-up races. I'm sure that however you choose to do it, it's gonna be great! :)

J.S.F.
07-07-2015, 01:42 PM
I prefer to characterize myself as "white as the driven snow, an albino in the making, a Frosty without the accompanying cold".

**No albinos were harmed in the writing of this. :D

Albedo
07-07-2015, 02:03 PM
That's exactly what I think when I see some of those descriptions of POC, lolol.

Tbf, it's also what I think when people are described as "ivory" and "poreless" . . . (GOOD GOD YOU NEED PORES TO LIVE QUICK SOMEONE HELP THIS PERSON)

Whenever I read of someone's "pale beauty" I think "anaemia". Characters in bad writing seem to suffer from iron deficiency a lot.

Sophia
07-07-2015, 02:23 PM
I guess there are still a dozen or so people out there who haven't gotten the memo that PoC find this tedious at best, offensive at worst

This isn't anything except a personal comment: Speaking only for myself, I like the food comparisons for my skin colour a lot, because it was only ever described in terms of excrement when I was growing up (in the late '70s/early '80s, UK). I remember in my early teenage years in school reading a book where someone used the term "tan-coloured" for a non-white character's skin, and being surprised and pleased that there were alternatives out there. Caramel, chocolate etc. sound so nice, to me. I find them flattering. But I think there are people who would strongly disagree with me on that. Everyone's different; describe the colour as the POV character would, I think.

Albedo
07-07-2015, 02:27 PM
I myself am the colour of supermarket brand white "chocolate" that somehow despite being labeled as such does not actually list cocoa as an ingredient.

aruna
07-07-2015, 02:57 PM
In Guyana, a common description of skin colour is "sapodilla brown", sapodilla being a delicious brown fruit. It's a compliment, and we certainly won't stop using it!

Putputt
07-07-2015, 03:14 PM
Heh, this is so awesome. I remember reading something years back when someone pointed out all the food descriptions of PoC and then proceeded to describe a white character as having skin the shade of a week-old button mushroom. I laughed so hard I almost peed a little. :D

Twick
07-07-2015, 05:41 PM
So, "peaches and cream complexion" is right out?

RichardGarfinkle
07-07-2015, 06:31 PM
So, "peaches and cream complexion" is right out?

The one that always unnerved me was Alabaster. While that stone does vary in shades; it's usually a bone white.

Putputt
07-07-2015, 08:08 PM
This isn't anything except a personal comment: Speaking only for myself, I like the food comparisons for my skin colour a lot, because it was only ever described in terms of excrement when I was growing up (in the late '70s/early '80s, UK). I remember in my early teenage years in school reading a book where someone used the term "tan-coloured" for a non-white character's skin, and being surprised and pleased that there were alternatives out there. Caramel, chocolate etc. sound so nice, to me. I find them flattering. But I think there are people who would strongly disagree with me on that. Everyone's different; describe the colour as the POV character would, I think.

That's an interesting perspective.

Growing up in Singapore, I didn't mind having our eyes described as almond-shaped, although I never really understood it cause to me our eyes didn't necessarily look almond-shaped. I almost poked out my best friend's eye holding an almond right up to it to compare. :D But there are definitely some descriptions that give me the "ick" feel more so than others. Ones that, to me, sound like they sexualize the character, for example, like "skin the color of warm caramel" or "skin the color of hot chocolate"...blergh. I dunno why, but I mind those more than I mind "almond-shaped eyes".

heza
07-07-2015, 08:33 PM
But there are definitely some descriptions that give me the "ick" feel more so than others. Ones that, to me, sound like they sexualize the character, for example, like "skin the color of warm caramel" or "skin the color of hot chocolate"...blergh. I dunno why, but I mind those more than I mind "almond-shaped eyes".

Probably because when you tell me anything is like caramel or chocolate, my first impulse is to lick it. It does sound like there's something sexual implied in the description. You know, luxurious foods are things you indulge in. Decadent foods are often described as sinful. So I get why that bothers people. But I promise I won't lick your almond eyeballs.

Usher
07-07-2015, 08:45 PM
So, "peaches and cream complexion" is right out?

I was wondering. What about olive? Or milky? or... my MC is pasty with blue cheese veins.

Chumplet
07-07-2015, 08:54 PM
This reminds me of when my daughter was about three years old, sitting in the grocery cart and perusing a flyer as we waited in the check-out line. She indicated a picture of chicken legs, and asked why they looked like that.

"It's what chicken looks like before it's cooked," I replied.

She came back with, "They look like your legs after you shave them, Mommy."

Of course, everyone within earshot laughed.

Angela
07-07-2015, 09:15 PM
ROFL@Chumplet! Kids say the darndest things.

Someone else said that list was both hilarious and horrible. I agree. I don't think I'm going to be able to get some of those images out of my head for days.

Kitty27
07-07-2015, 09:26 PM
My goodness!

This is hilarious and sad at the same time. I hollered at some of the descriptions. I don;t mind being called caramel, though.

kuwisdelu
07-08-2015, 12:45 AM
I know I have some embarrassing descriptions of white characters from my high school writing. Will have to see if I can find some tomorrow.

Hmm couldn't really find any good examples.

Did come across this, though:


White like a ghost. Pale like a sheet. Sex is awkward when you keep losing him in the sheets.

Hmm, there's also this:


A fresh snow of coke adorned her upper lip, but you could hardly tell. She was even paler than she’d been before. She looked like a vampire, all weary, death-white, and a thousand years aged. She was a single, minor chord, wavering just off-key. No third, just root and fifth, the bare bones of what she’d been. She was just bare bones. She was bones stretched tight with sweaty, see-through, sinewy skin like light. She was a blank book with all the words replaced with weeping.

And this:


Stephen was unmoving. Mary was a shattered painting. She kept looking at him. She was tiny and beautiful. Nothing about her was beautiful, but she was beautiful. Her hair was a mess. It was wires and cobwebs, and so were her eyes. Everything about her was pale or translucent or bloodshot. But the way she looked at Stephen would have broken a million hearts.

...maybe I got carried away with those last two examples.

J.S.F.
07-08-2015, 03:12 AM
With all these food descriptions it's no wonder avid readers are overweight. Subliminal seduction at its finest! :D

Cyia
07-08-2015, 03:39 AM
A funny thing about the "almond shaped eyes" was pointed out by a blogger not too long ago. The typical person being described that way is Asian, without a visible lid crease, but if you take a literal almond and put it up to a Caucasian or other European with the lid crease, then the almond actually matches. So not only is it bad / cliched writing, it's also dead wrong.

There's a similar phenomena in fanfic inside the Harry Potter fandom. Ficcers are obsessed with Hermione's eyes and Draco's eyes. Hers are always flavors: honey, chocolate, toffee, etc. His are always temperatures: cold, icy, frigid, etc.

Once someone - or a group of someones - falls into an easy comparative pattern, it spreads like fire and isn't easy to stamp out.

Liosse de Velishaf
07-08-2015, 03:44 AM
Ya know, depending on how pasty I am at any given time, I often look like the inside of an almond... Or perhaps a skinned coconut?

Ravioli
07-08-2015, 03:59 AM
LOL. I never understood racial stereotypes.

Also, this:

"I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade — coffee, chocolate, brown sugar. There’s some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that." N.K. Jemisin
Let's just use heroin. Oh, wait.

My cauliflour cheeks are flushing the color of ground turkey as I read this article and laugh. My inside-of-an-avocado belly quakes.

buz
07-08-2015, 04:00 AM
Mmm, I think my skin is kind of like the color of a mealworm, ranging from freshly-shed (areas that never see the sun) to crusty sallow (arms, which are the only parts that see the sun). A special case is my face, though, which just looks like any farm animal's skin with old gray mud crusted on their fur in mess of small hard protuburences with a few open weeping sores.

Er, I mean...peppermint bark? *tries to think of sexy food for acne * Uh. Gruel. 'S all I got. Gruel face. mmmm

Putputt
07-08-2015, 05:41 AM
Probably because when you tell me anything is like caramel or chocolate, my first impulse is to lick it. It does sound like there's something sexual implied in the description. You know, luxurious foods are things you indulge in. Decadent foods are often described as sinful. So I get why that bothers people. But I promise I won't lick your almond eyeballs.

Heh, that makes a lot of sense. I was wondering why "skin the color of tea" wouldn't bother me as much as "chocolate" and "caramel"...okay, your reasoning works. :D


Mmm, I think my skin is kind of like the color of a mealworm, ranging from freshly-shed (areas that never see the sun) to crusty sallow (arms, which are the only parts that see the sun). A special case is my face, though, which just looks like any farm animal's skin with old gray mud crusted on their fur in mess of small hard protuburences with a few open weeping sores.

Er, I mean...peppermint bark? *tries to think of sexy food for acne * Uh. Gruel. 'S all I got. Gruel face. mmmm

I think Buz should be the official Describer of All Characters. Buz, please describe all my characters for me. *frantically licks you until you agree*

heza
07-08-2015, 05:46 AM
Er, I mean...peppermint bark? *tries to think of sexy food for acne * Uh. Gruel. 'S all I got. Gruel face. mmmm

I think I'm the color of garbanzo beans... or raw, blanched almond butter.

backslashbaby
07-08-2015, 06:42 AM
Kuwi, I've seen pictures of myself where my first thought is that I look like a ghost. I just do!

I've had people say vampire, and a really cute guy in school who nicknamed me Snow White, but pasty is probably the only one that offends me, I think. Or people who tell me I need a tan or ask if I'm anemic. WTF?

When I have some tan (I'm outside so much now that I do even with sunscreen), it looks like the skin on how I like my baked chicken! Like exactly that color :ROFL: But don't call it 'sallow', y'all, please. I'd rather be called chicken than sallow.

Viridian
07-08-2015, 06:54 AM
I'm a heavily freckled white lady.

So maybe... porridge with cinnamon flecks?

Emermouse
07-08-2015, 06:56 AM
The one that always unnerved me was Alabaster. While that stone does vary in shades; it's usually a bone white.

That makes me think of the old fairy tale, Snow White. Has anyone ever actually sat down and drawn her as she's described? Skin as white as snow, lips the color of blood, hair as black as raven's wings...chick looks like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, basically.

Me, I admit as a white person, I'm not going to claim expertise on this matter, but I do have POC in my books, but I mostly just say, "She's black," and get on with the part where the character does stuff. Because that's what you remember about a character: what they do. I do worry whether I haven't mentioned it enough, because as many will point out, white is still seen as the default. I don't want to make the same mistakes as the Babysitters' Club where they felt a need to stress how Black Jessi is, even though we can see on the cover that she's Black. Plus anyone who has read that series, knows that when they try to tackle racisim, they usually come across as patronizing at best.

calieber
07-08-2015, 07:44 AM
The one that always unnerved me was Alabaster. While that stone does vary in shades; it's usually a bone white.

Here's what describing someone as "alabaster" makes me think of:

Yet I'll not shed her blood;/Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,/And smooth as monumental alabaster.

That's actually about race, of course.

autumnleaf
07-08-2015, 01:59 PM
I definitely heard "milky" or "creamy" to describe pale skin, or "honey" for a light tan.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gringas

The one that always confuses me is "olive". Any olives I've seen are green or black, not the brown that's usually implied by "olive skin".

Putputt
07-08-2015, 02:17 PM
The one that always confuses me is "olive". Any olives I've seen are green or black, not the brown that's usually implied by "olive skin".

THANK YOU. Good lord, "olive skin" has confounded me for years. I never understood how the hell it meant "tan" or "brown" when all the olives I've come across are green or black. It's a conspiracy!

Cyia
07-08-2015, 02:56 PM
Olive is an undertone, not the actual skin color, like when make-up is cool for pink undertones or warm for yellow. It's still a weird descriptor.

Ken
07-08-2015, 03:45 PM
Swarthy is a neat one, whatever that means.

UnluckyClover77
07-08-2015, 11:28 PM
Brown olives do exist, y'know? I still wouldn't use it to describe skin tone, it's weird. :)

Vegetarian Cannibal
07-09-2015, 12:29 AM
I don't understand "olive skin." Like. At all. Olives are oily, green, and inhuman.

"Swarthy" makes me think of pirates. (I don't know why!)

"Gruel" + "Acne" produces an unwanted effect on my synesthesia. Ew. LOL.

RichardGarfinkle
07-09-2015, 12:38 AM
Swarthy is a neat one, whatever that means.

Swarthy basically means black. Here's the OED online
http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/195515?rskey=0plUKh&result=1#eid


Of a dark hue; black or blackish; dusky.

It shows up some in Tolkien in context of the humans who serve Sauron, hence accusations of racism in the Lord of the Rings.
Here's a discussion of that.
http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Racism_in_Tolkien%27s_Works

Roxxsmom
07-09-2015, 12:43 AM
This isn't anything except a personal comment: Speaking only for myself, I like the food comparisons for my skin colour a lot, because it was only ever described in terms of excrement when I was growing up (in the late '70s/early '80s, UK). I remember in my early teenage years in school reading a book where someone used the term "tan-coloured" for a non-white character's skin, and being surprised and pleased that there were alternatives out there. Caramel, chocolate etc. sound so nice, to me. I find them flattering. But I think there are people who would strongly disagree with me on that. Everyone's different; describe the colour as the POV character would, I think.

I generally agree with the use the terminology the pov character would use advice, but there is a problem. What if the pov character is the kind of person who would see a black girl and think, "oooh, skin like chocolate" without meaning to be offensive? Or what if I'm trying to portray a world where no one race is the default, so peaches and cream, marzipan, and vanilla are being tossed around as much as honey, caramel and chocolate, and there's no history of colonialism and slave labor in the production of these goods?

The only thing I can think is to make sure that consequences surface occasionally, even if it's simply someone commenting that they don't like being referred to that way.

It's interesting how personal experience can affect what is bothersome too. Someone who grew up in an era where people were frankly and unapologetically racist and insulting might have different feelings about "caramel skin" than someone who grew up in a setting where racism was a bit more subtle, but they were exoticized for their looks.

It's sort of like the generational and regional differences in which words that refer to race are considered polite.


I don't understand "olive skin." Like. At all. Olives are oily, green, and inhuman.



Olive generally refers to light brown/tan colored skin that has slight yellowish/greenish undertones instead of ruddy or more amber. I'm one of those white people who sometimes is told I have olive skin, and it always bugged me when I was a kid. But the differences between skin color are continuous and darned hard to pinpoint without devolving into very dry, clinical over description. There is a great deal of overlap between colors, and honestly, I can't even begin to describe someone and make it clear they look like they're from India versus, say, South America or Iraq, or Southern Europe for that matter. Describing eyebrows and so on? I don't really have words for a lot of that besides the stock in trade ones--thin, delicately arched, like fuzzy caterpillars, meeting in the middle.

Ken
07-09-2015, 01:45 AM
Interesting links, Richard. Thnx for the insight.
OED is cool. First time I ever had a peek. I like how the history of the words are given.
Not sure what my perspective is on LOTR after reading the link and references to his letters?
Maybe the maxim, ignorance is bliss is best applied with authors one likes ;-)

My idea was that swarthy meant leathery. Sailors in novels I've read have been described as such.

EMaree
07-10-2015, 02:15 PM
The whole "olive skin" issue is confounding me with my current WIP -- my main character is a British-Italian male, and...

1. Calling him "olive skinned" is technically correct for Mediterranean complexions, but it sounds slightly odd applied to a male character. (Also, I'm wary of the Katniss Everdeen issue where olive is read as white).
2. "Mediterranean skin" also reads kind of feminine and exoticizing to my ears.
3. Calling him tanned will just get interpreted as some readers as white-with-suntan and noooopeee I don't want that. I know some Italians are happy to describe themselves as white, but this guy's had to deal with a lot of racism growing up in pasty-white rural England and he's very conscious of his family's differences.

Light brown is the best I can think of at this point, and I'm fortunate that I'm writing secondary-world-fantasy so I can directly refer to Italy, but I'm still trying to figure out a natural fit.

EDIT: SLHuang suggested bronze-skinned which is pretty damn perfect. :D Plus, it works perfectly for the story's voice -- this somewhat excitable young dude is going to love referring to himself as looking like a badass shiny statue.

autumnleaf
07-10-2015, 02:56 PM
I can't even begin to describe someone and make it clear they look like they're from India versus, say, South America or Iraq, or Southern Europe for that matter.

Is there actually a "South America" look? South America is at least as racially diverse as North America, AFAIK.

Latina Bunny
12-28-2015, 11:03 PM
Ok, old thread, but I'm probably going to use it for, er, research, lol. XD Sort of. I have a lesbian mixed-race couple that uses food similes as terms of endearment for each other (on purpose), and the white lesbian lover just loves food and tends to be pretty tactless. :P

This thread does give food for thought! :D

Dreity
12-28-2015, 11:18 PM
Ok, old thread, but I'm probably going to use it for, er, research, lol. XD Sort of. I have a lesbian mixed-race couple that uses food as terms of endearment for each other (on purpose), and the white lesbian lover just loves food and tends to be pretty tactless. :P

This thread does give food for thought! :D

I see what you did there. :greenie