Is this description unlikely to give offense?

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CathleenT

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In my books I try to avoid everyone being described as white, and I don't choose non-white protags since I'm of European descent.

This is a sample of the type of description I'm doing lately. I had one beta recommend describing the skin color as chocolate, which is something I don't do because I thought some people find it unpleasant.

So, this is a fairly representative sample of how I plan on describing an older black man who's an important supporting character:

"All anyone could guess about Hal’s age was somewhere in his fifties, but he still possessed a lean, whipcord frame and an air of absolute physical competence. His grizzled iron-gray hair shot with silver framed a dark face, currently frowning as he counted up the take."

I realize this isn't SYW, but I'm not trying to circumvent the post count requirement, and before I post for general feedback, I'd greatly appreciate input on this one specific issue. Thanks so much in advance. : )
 

jonxihama

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Don't describe skin using food
The reason is that these words fetishize brown skin. Imagine if we compared white skin to after-dinner mints, yoghurt, or boiled rice. It’s ridiculous. In the same way, to imply that brown people are “edible” objectifies them, which is the last thing you want to do.
The description seems fine to me. "Dark", "black", "brown", "bronze", etc. are OK in my book. But generally with topics like this, one person thumbs up isn't enough to give your writing a pass.
 

RobMcDonald

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+1 to that link. Here's another that includes extensive advice on race as well as other areas of diversity. It's a blog and much of it is in Q&A format, so it can be tricky to find exactly the point you're looking for, but it is an absolute trove of insight, well worth exploring.
 

Woollybear

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It also works for me, an older, white, cis-het woman in California.

The only other approach I recall seeing in my reading is the comparative approach. If someone else earlier is described as tanned, for example, this character can be described as 'far darker than XXX' or 'darker even than XXX despite her deep tan."

I suspect you are already familiar with that approach. :)
 
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ChaseJxyz

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and I don't choose non-white protags since I'm of European descent.
...why? Should we only have protags that are what we are? Should I just get rid of all of my cis protags since I'm not cis? Since I'm not actually a bird should I not have bird protagonists?

By only making X writers have X protagonists, you're limiting the number of X characters that are out there in the world and enforcing the idea that they're too dangerous/risky to write about if you're not X. Especially in a fantasy story where there's no reason for racism to exist like it does in our world, someone being black or brown or green or purple is just another physical feature, not some stratified class.

I'm also going to say no, do not use dark. The Writing With Color blog says not to use that, because it's incredibly vague. When I was little, when I heard "tall, dark and handsome" I thought they were talking about Black people, because isn't that what "dark" implies? But it almost never is in reference to Black person, it's about hair or eye color or their mood/personality/backstory/edginess.

So in your example, what the hell is a "dark face" ? If I read your description, I wouldn't think the person was not-White, because "dark" is so vague and can mean so many things. Is he standing in shadow? Does he have a lot of beard shadow going on? Is he an edgelord? "Is he Black" is pretty low on the list because "dark" is normally used for things OTHER than skin color.

The beta reader who told you to use "chocolate" is incredibly "yikes" because that's so fetishizing and tone-deaf. Honestly I would seriously re-evaluate anything they tell you, as I wouldn't trust their judgement if they thought that was a good idea.
 

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I'm fine with your example.

But I agree with the prettier birdie above: not chocolate. Or coffee. Or oreo cookie. That's just creepy as f**k. Unless, I suppose, your character has a food fetish, and goes around describing your white characters as having skin the colour of wheat pasta, or hummus, or shortbread, or banana flesh. Which would still be creepy as f**k, but at least consistent.
 

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"Dark" sounds ok to me. But if you want readers to figure out the character is Black, then maybe say so? Although, I did find Anne McCaffrey's description of Piemur interesting: "his head of black curls". I don't recall if "tight" was added in there, but the description certainly had me visualising non-white.
 
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CathleenT

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Thanks, everyone. And I'm not trying to be combative, but I thought I'd make a side point. I wouldn't worry too much about consistency in food metaphors and skin color.

For many years, "peaches and cream" was a description of a certain kind of complexion. I had it applied to me, and that was fine.

But peaches and cream was usually taken as a compliment, and describing someone's skin as chocolate or coffee-colored can be negatively received.

I just look at it as there's no earthly reason to give offense if it's easily avoided. : )
 

Morning Rainbow

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I agree with Chase. "Dark" is a subjective term, and the way you're using it would make me think of a white man with a darker complexion than the POV character as opposed to a Black man. If it helps any, in my writing, I use specific shades of brown when describing my characters' skin colors.
 

LJD

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"Dark" sounds ok to me. But if you want readers to figure out the character is Black, then maybe say so?

Yeah, this.

I prefer to be very clear about this (in part because some readers will view as a character as white unless very explicitly told otherwise).*

BUT I write contemporary romance, and this approach won't necessarily make sense for, say, SFF, because the words used might not be the same.

*Also because we often make these assumptions about a new person when we meet them. We don't think "monolid eyes, likely East Asian." We think, "he looks Asian," maybe. And as someone whose appearance is "ethnically ambiguous," ppl ask me questions like "what are you?" within minutes of meeting me, because it bugs them they can't slot me into a box.
 
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Chris P

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"Dark" as you've used it here and with the context could be an Asian Indian, or Greek or other Mediterranean person to me. I didn't see a Black person when you described it. Just a perspective, which probably says more about me than it does about your description.
 

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Don't describe skin using food

The description seems fine to me. "Dark", "black", "brown", "bronze", etc. are OK in my book. But generally with topics like this, one person thumbs up isn't enough to give your writing a pass.
I've certainly run across descriptions of White people's complexion that reference food. Milk pale, peaches and cream, oatmeal colored, ham faced etc.

I think the difference is that these things aren't generally done in a way that exoticizes or otherizes White people to the same extent, and these are not done nearly as often overall or by people with more power who are specifically fetishizing an entire group of people because they are in the minority and perceived as different.

I don't think it's problematic to describe a character as Black in a contemporary work then provide more description, as long as one doesn't forget to mention when a character is White sometimes.

I don't know what to do when a viewpoint character is someone who would think of someone in a way now considered offensive or even just think or use a go-to racial term (like Oriental) that is problematic today but wasn't considered racist back then. Is it hurtful to have a viewpoint character describe someone else (or themselves) as Negro, for instance, in a novel set in the 50s-era US?
 
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jonxihama

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I don't know what to do when a viewpoint character is someone who would think of someone in a way now considered offensive or even just think or use a go-to racial term (like Oriental) that is problematic today but wasn't considered racist back then. Is it hurtful to have a viewpoint character describe someone else (or themselves) as Negro, for instance, in a novel set in the 50s-era US?
I'll repeat that one person's opinion is not enough to justify a choice in writing. But in my singular opinion, a character using racist or insensitive language in dialogue or internal monologue is OK if it befits the story. Narrative prose using racist or insensitive language is a reflection of the author.
 
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Roxxsmom

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I agree, although some people may find it very upsetting to read a story set in a time or place where an otherwise reasonable person would use or think those words, let alone one that was an offensive racial slur back then as well.

I generally write in first person or a closer limited third, so the narrative reflects the view and perspective of whoever the viewpoint character is at the time. This can create an issue if a reader assumes the narrative viewpoint reflects the author's views, even when it doesn't.

So I'm glad I am most interested in writing speculative fiction set in created worlds that don't share our history. I can have story settings where history and culture are very different, including settings where everyone has brown skin, or where differences in skin color are no more consequential than hair and eye color are in a European country, or at least a diverse world where there is no history of successful colonialism on the scale of what happened in our world, so views on ethnicity are more akin to what they were prior to the 1600s or so.

But this creates its own challenges. It can be hard to keep one's own cultural assumptions and norms out of a world that doesn't share them, and of course it can be challenging to accurately describe the appearance of people who aren't "white" without either falling into the "ambiguously brown" trope, or using terms that are stereotypical and inaccurate (and potentially offensive), such as saying someone has "almond shaped eyes" or "chocolate skin."

Readers tend to default to an assumption of Whiteness, and simply mentioning skin color a few times won't convince typically biased US or UK readers that most people in your fantasy world resemble people from sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia or some other place that isn't Europe, especially if you are creating a novel culture and not "borrowing" one from the real world (also potentially problematic if done in stereotyped ways).

It's definitely good to solicit a variety of views during the creative process, as even a single sensitivity reader will have their own perspective.
 
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Sophia

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I think "dark" is too open to different interpretations to do its job as a descriptor. I think just saying "his black skin" somewhere would be enough (I'm guessing the exact shade has no bearing on your story).

I have brown skin, and I sometimes want to gently remind people that brown is a colour, and not a dirty word that must not be said in polite company. Just say brown (or black) skin.
 

jonxihama

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I agree, although some people may find it very upsetting to read a story set in a time or place where an otherwise reasonable person would use or think those words, let alone one that was an offensive racial slur back then as well.
If you ever feel compelled to write such a story, I think it's ok if some won't read it. I very recently read Kindred by Octavia Butler because I can only read so much about slavery. Setting a story in such an era will prevent some from reading, but that's not a reason to avoid such settings either.
 

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I think "dark" is too open to different interpretations to do its job as a descriptor. I think just saying "his black skin" somewhere would be enough (I'm guessing the exact shade has no bearing on your story).

I have brown skin, and I sometimes want to gently remind people that brown is a colour, and not a dirty word that must not be said in polite company. Just say brown (or black) skin.
It's all so fraught. I recall conversations from earlier in my life as to why calling someone (or their skin) 'black' would be offensive. According to the arguments, the color was associated with and tied into villainy and evil. ("The dark side" being devilish, and and so on. Heaven being a place of white light.)

The terms change. That's fine, but it makes it hard to know which is offensive or not, and how these things will stand in ten or fifteen years.

I see news articles now that "People of color" is on its way out.
 

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The reader need not learn everything about a character's ethnicity from a single description of their appearance. Dark is just fine for getting the ball rolling.

I don't like chocolate but I can't say why other than I experience an odd connotation from it.

My story is in a human colony on another planet in the not too distant future. There are mixed ethnicities one can tell from some descriptions and names.

But I've purposefully avoided describing the ethnicity of some characters. There are class divides including a slave class and I didn't want to detract too much from the story by making the lower and slave classes defined by some black or brown ethnicity.
 
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Set2Stun

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So I'm glad I am most interested in writing speculative fiction set in created worlds that don't share our history.
Same! I'm pretty new to the game, but my natural inclination has been to not include descriptors that could be racially identifying when introducing characters. That way, the reader can project whatever they might be most comfortable with. I hope that doesn't sound like a totally insane idea 😅
 

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Same! I'm pretty new to the game, but my natural inclination has been to not include descriptors that could be racially identifying when introducing characters. That way, the reader can project whatever they might be most comfortable with. I hope that doesn't sound like a totally insane idea 😅
That's an approach some use, but it's fallen a bit out of favor these days because research suggests that readers of all ethnic backgrounds (at least in Western countries) usually default to assuming characters are European-looking (aka "white") without a clear indication that they are not. This is a product of so many years of Whiteness being presented as the default reference point, I think.

In fact, many readers will assume a character is white, even when the author provides fairly clear description that implies they are not (such as Rue in the Hunger Games or Ged in the Wizard of Earthsea saga).

There's an added issue with fantasy, at least, where readers tend to assume anything set in a pre-industrialized setting is "medieval European" (most people also don't get that the so-called middle ages lasted for centuries and were not lacking in diversity across the period, nor across different parts of Europe).

Even in a fantasy world with made-up cultures and a unique history, it's likely that different groups of people from different parts of the world and from different cultures will differ in some ways that matter to them and those around them. The society may not have our history of colonialism or institutionalized racism, but people will still make assessments about someone's ancestry, culture and heritage based on their appearance, dress, accent and so on, and these things will shape people's self perception too.
 
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Set2Stun

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That's an approach some use, but it's fallen a bit out of favor these days because research suggests that readers of all ethnic backgrounds (at least in Western countries) usually default to assuming characters are European-looking (aka "white") without a clear indication that they are not.
Was not aware of that; fascinating, but sad. I have to imagine that's changing now with people growing up with shows like say, Star Trek: Discovery. It's changing in fantasy too. The Witcher show comes to mind.
 

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In fact, many readers will assume a character is white, even when the author provides fairly clear description that implies they are not (such as Rue in the Hunger Games or Ged in the Wizard of Earthsea saga).

This.

If you want a multi-ethnic cast, be explicit about it (and describe the skin tone/features of your Caucasian characters the same as you do the others). A lot of readers will still miss it, but you have to start somewhere.

I used to be the Let The Reader Decide writer. My first agent encouraged me to be explicit. In my first book, the MC was described once as dark skinned, and I figured that would be enough. In the second, I added a lot more mentions; in the third, even more. I still had readers who didn't get it.

I am getting better about this, but clarity is absolutely necessary.
 
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lizmonster

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Was not aware of that; fascinating, but sad. I have to imagine that's changing now with people growing up with shows like say, Star Trek: Discovery. It's changing in fantasy too. The Witcher show comes to mind.
It's not changing, not really.

And honestly? There's nothing wrong with describing your characters thoroughly. We're all comfortable with red hair or green eyes; why do we shy away from descriptions of skin tone? It's not really that big of a change.
 

Set2Stun

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It's not changing, not really.

And honestly? There's nothing wrong with describing your characters thoroughly. We're all comfortable with red hair or green eyes; why do we shy away from descriptions of skin tone? It's not really that big of a change.
To be honest, I want to avoid the whole, "this isn't your story to tell" kind of thing. But then again, one could be accused of not including enough diversity at the same time. So the "let the reader decide" felt like a fair option.
 

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To be honest, I want to avoid the whole, "this isn't your story to tell" kind of thing. But then again, one could be accused of not including enough diversity at the same time. So the "let the reader decide" felt like a fair option.

So I'm an Old White Lady, and my opinion should be taken with that in mind. But unless you're writing about experiences of racism, I don't think there's a problem making your cast a different ethnicity than you are yourself. If your story doesn't depend on ethnicity, it doesn't matter what ethnicity your characters are. (There's also nothing wrong with writing white people if that's what your story is calling for.)

Of course I write SF, so I'm not dealing with modern society anyway. My Black MC doesn't experience bias based on his skin color, because that's not a thing in my far-future universe. Which may bug some readers, and that's a completely valid response. But I feel quite strongly the future isn't going to be White Guys In Space, so skin colors and ancestries are varied. And the more I write, the better I'm getting at not being coy about that.
 
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