Is this description unlikely to give offense?

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

Set2Stun

Banned
Joined
Sep 30, 2021
Messages
144
Reaction score
55
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.
I'm taking your opinion with your experience in mind; you have plenty, and I'm just a noob. Maybe I should be more open to it. I write science fiction as well, and we do get to "cheat" a little if we want to with our visions of the future.

Maybe it's just a matter of making sure that if you include characters of certain ethnicities, you describe them respectfully and try to make sure that's not their main characteristic?
 

lizmonster

Possibly A Mermaid Queen
Absolute Sage
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 5, 2012
Messages
10,651
Reaction score
9,147
Location
Massachusetts
Website
elizabethbonesteel.com
I'm taking your opinion with your experience in mind; you have plenty, and I'm just a noob. Maybe I should be more open to it. I write science fiction as well, and we do get to "cheat" a little if we want to with our visions of the future.

Maybe it's just a matter of making sure that if you include characters of certain ethnicities, you describe them respectfully and try to make sure that's not their main characteristic?
I think you write characters, and they look like what they look like. Yeah, it's worth knowing what is and isn't offensive, like food metaphors; but as this thread has shown, there's no need to be delicate. "Dark" is an OK word. "Black" is an OK word. "Beige" is an OK word.

And if you're worried, get other eyeballs on it! I've run whole sections of WIPs by other people, asking them to beat me up if I describe anyone offensively, or leave anything out. You'll find folks around here are Not Shy about such things. :)
 

Set2Stun

Banned
Joined
Sep 30, 2021
Messages
144
Reaction score
55
I think you write characters, and they look like what they look like. Yeah, it's worth knowing what is and isn't offensive, like food metaphors; but as this thread has shown, there's no need to be delicate. "Dark" is an OK word. "Black" is an OK word. "Beige" is an OK word.

And if you're worried, get other eyeballs on it! I've run whole sections of WIPs by other people, asking them to beat me up if I describe anyone offensively, or leave anything out. You'll find folks around here are Not Shy about such things. :)
Thank you for your input on this matter. It's something I have been thinking about a lot lately. I'll have to read more in this section; I just noticed this thread and was interested in the discussion. If I have more questions, I know where to post them !
 

Unimportant

I got a Sisyphus point!!!!!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 8, 2005
Messages
10,507
Reaction score
7,360
Location
Aotearoa
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.
As others have said, the reader will decide that everyone is white.

Assuming your characters are human or human-like: Unless they are severely visually impaired, they will see the characters they interact with. Humans naturally see skin colour and categorise accordingly. It's one of the first things we notice about people. Skin colour, hair, height, body shape. It's how we recognise individuals. Humans also notice things that are different to them. White people don't categorise other white people based on their skin colour because for them it is the norm.

So if none of your characters notice each other's skin colour, that means that they all share the same skin colour. And for readers, the default is white. Even for readers of colour. Because that's all that got published for hundreds of years.

ETA with the caveat that, like Liz, I am an old white lady. Except even older.
 

Woollybear

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 27, 2017
Messages
6,250
Reaction score
3,070
Location
USA
I'm reading Parable of the Sower and assuming Lauren is black. Because of the cover and the author. So, it can be done.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Set2Stun

Unimportant

I got a Sisyphus point!!!!!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 8, 2005
Messages
10,507
Reaction score
7,360
Location
Aotearoa
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.
I think that's because we see them, in TV and movies. Just like in the Hunger Games movie-- people realised Rue was black because, well, she was black! Some of 'em weren't happy and went all racist asshat about it, but there it was, in their face. Rue was described as dark skinned etc in the book, but readers glossed over it because it wasn't what they wanted or expected.

If the actor, or the book cover, or something visual depicts a character as looking a certain way, the viewer/reader will probably get it. But in prose, it takes a mighty big hammer to get the point across to readers who come with pre set expectations or assumptions.
 

Unimportant

I got a Sisyphus point!!!!!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 8, 2005
Messages
10,507
Reaction score
7,360
Location
Aotearoa
I'm taking your opinion with your experience in mind; you have plenty, and I'm just a noob. Maybe I should be more open to it. I write science fiction as well, and we do get to "cheat" a little if we want to with our visions of the future.

Maybe it's just a matter of making sure that if you include characters of certain ethnicities, you describe them respectfully and try to make sure that's not their main characteristic?
I reckon it's about being true to your setting. If humans don't really notice skin colour because everyone has tie-died skin or flashing light implants or glow in the dark paint etc, then it's realistic for people not to notice natural skin colour and instead notice the skin modifications. If your futuristic world has more non human aliens than humans, it would be realistic that humans would categorise people by species, then planetary affiliation, then number of appendeges, and finally oh, they're also human, look at their skin colour as a poor afterthought. But if your futuristic world is like Gilead, and is as or more racist than our own, skin colour is gonna be the first thing everyone notices and judges by.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Set2Stun

Set2Stun

Banned
Joined
Sep 30, 2021
Messages
144
Reaction score
55
I reckon it's about being true to your setting. If humans don't really notice skin colour because everyone has tie-died skin or flashing light implants or glow in the dark paint etc, then it's realistic for people not to notice natural skin colour and instead notice the skin modifications. If your futuristic world has more non human aliens than humans, it would be realistic that humans would categorise people by species, then planetary affiliation, then number of appendeges, and finally oh, they're also human, look at their skin colour as a poor afterthought. But if your futuristic world is like Gilead, and is as or more racist than our own, skin colour is gonna be the first thing everyone notices and judges by.
You've made some interesting points. I often shake my head when reading the news, decrying human nature. But it's the same here, isn't it? Humans are gonna human. Even in an ideal Star Trek: TNG kind of universe, there are implicit and explicit biases.

I don't *think* I've had the same experience reading, the white assumption thing. I pay attention to descriptions for the most part. The first example that comes to mind is that the protagonist in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is a Hispanic man with a physical disability in a plural marriage. That did not escape me, but also his female, white friend disguising herself in blackface to escape the authorities after a violent incident might be a touch problematic.
 

Set2Stun

Banned
Joined
Sep 30, 2021
Messages
144
Reaction score
55
Did you read The Wizard of Earthsea? How did you see the characters there?
I have not, and a couple of people have mentioned it now, so I suppose I should look for a paperback for my next Amazon order ;)
 

Unimportant

I got a Sisyphus point!!!!!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 8, 2005
Messages
10,507
Reaction score
7,360
Location
Aotearoa
You've made some interesting points. I often shake my head when reading the news, decrying human nature. But it's the same here, isn't it? Humans are gonna human. Even in an ideal Star Trek: TNG kind of universe, there are implicit and explicit biases.

I don't *think* I've had the same experience reading, the white assumption thing. I pay attention to descriptions for the most part. The first example that comes to mind is that the protagonist in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is a Hispanic man with a physical disability in a plural marriage. That did not escape me, but also his female, white friend disguising herself in blackface to escape the authorities after a violent incident might be a touch problematic.
It's a matter of having those descriptions, and writing them in a way that creates a picture.

Ricky Set2Stun tugged at his red company tie, its contrasting stripes the same shade as his skin and crisply ironed dress shirt. "Yes, sir," he said. "The MC president's men will deliver the shipment at midnight."

Enrico Set2Stun tugged at his red company tie, its contrasting stripes the same shade as his skin and button-down work shirt. "Si, jefe," he said. "The cartel's men will deliver the shipment at midnight."


Readers may assume and picture different things from those two, even though the only colour mentioned is red.
 

Set2Stun

Banned
Joined
Sep 30, 2021
Messages
144
Reaction score
55
It's a matter of having those descriptions, and writing them in a way that creates a picture.

Ricky Set2Stun tugged at his red company tie, its contrasting stripes the same shade as his skin and crisply ironed dress shirt. "Yes, sir," he said. "The MC president's men will deliver the shipment at midnight."

Enrico Set2Stun tugged at his red company tie, its contrasting stripes the same shade as his skin and button-down work shirt. "Si, jefe," he said. "The cartel's men will deliver the shipment at midnight."


Readers may assume and picture different things from those two, even though the only colour mentioned is red.
I was just thinking about names while I was searching for a Wizard of Earthsea book (looks like it's one of those ubiquitous things that I have somehow missed?) and I remembered that the character I mentioned earlier was named Manuel. Even a few hundred years into the future, names and language might be appropriate signifiers that would be less likely to be found offensive than a description.
 

lizmonster

Possibly A Mermaid Queen
Absolute Sage
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 5, 2012
Messages
10,651
Reaction score
9,147
Location
Massachusetts
Website
elizabethbonesteel.com
Here's the transcript of an extraordinarily good discussion on the subject:

Writing the Other Roundtable: Writing Characters of Color When You Are White

Long and worth the time. One of many excellent bits:

Justina: So, my first thing is, if you think your audience is nothing but white people, then you have no business writing a character of color. Because that tells me you don’t know any people of color, and so you’re already in the wrong park. And I think that’s a big problem, is that a lot of folks who go out and write these books, they don’t know any Black people, they don’t know any Asian people. And they’re just like: “I’m just going to borrow this character because I’ve heard diversity is a thing right now, and I heard it’s going to give me a better chance to get published.”

So, my first thing is, is you have to keep in mind who your audience is. If I hear one more person say, “Well, I wrote about elves, and I don’t know any elves!” I’m going to punch them in the mouth. Because elves don’t exist; Black people do. And an elf is not going to show up and say, “You mis—no, that’s not how we live in our trees at all!” you know, “Our cookies are much more delicious!” What they’re going to say is, nothing, ’cause they don’t exist.
 

AW Admin

Administrator
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 19, 2008
Messages
18,770
Reaction score
6,206
BabyBoomerX you didn't read the stickies.
 

dickson

Hairy on the inside
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 12, 2017
Messages
747
Reaction score
619
Location
Directly over the center of the Earth
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.
Embarrassed to have to confess this, but I caught myself making this same error recently. In the final volume of the Goody/Grant OddJobs pentology, the implacably detail-oriented Vivian wakens in a hospital bed and attempts to rise, seeing for the first time in a long while “her brown feet.” The series has characters of every ethnicity and appearance you could hope for. Even though Vivian is a Brummie by birth, l did a mental facepalm on realizing I’d lazily imagined her as White for most of the preceding four volumes.
 

Ravioli

Crazy Cat Lady
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 4, 2015
Messages
2,695
Reaction score
407
Location
Germany, native Israeli
Website
annagiladi.wixsite.com
White-passing/ethnically ambiguous mixed person here, so I haven't had food associations for my ethnicity, but I do live in a heavily marginalized body, and I'm not anyone's pastry. I'm a human person. Please describe me in human person terms.

There really is no inoffensive way to objectify people of colour when you're not one (of the same ethnicity), be it by likening their traits to tasty food or be it through less "friendly" associations. In general, tread lightly when describing marginalized bodies, be it black, fat, female, disabled, or other, and pursue neutrality. Also be mindful of social imbalances that make it problematic to apply the same rules to your own people and to people outside your group: what may be a humorous way to describe yourself - such as foodstuff - may be hurtful when directed at a marginalized group.

The description you posted sounds quite neutral. "Dark" alone however may not give away his skin colour as "dark" can also mean "grumpy" or "unfriendly" when speaking of faces. Brown, dark-skinned, brown-skinned etc. are, as far as I know, neutral ways to describe black people.
 

Roxxsmom

Beastly Fido
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Oct 24, 2011
Messages
21,039
Reaction score
5,702
Location
Where faults collide
Website
doggedlywriting.blogspot.com
Also be mindful of social imbalances that make it problematic to apply the same rules to your own people and to people outside your group: what may be a humorous way to describe yourself - such as foodstuff - may be hurtful when directed at a marginalized group.
This thread has been quiet for a while, but I just ran across a site that is relevant to it. And the point quoted above is important.

I have sometimes wondered why it's okay to describe a pretty white girl as having "peaches and cream" complexion (aside from it's being so common it's a trite cliche nowadays), when that's a yummy food and is clearly objectifying her in a rather consumptive way. I think the difference lies in that she's not being fetishized because of her race, since in most books that use that description are written by white people and set in places where whiteness is the default norm.

I suppose one could argue that female characters are also fetishized and objectified because of their gender, but this may be another topic: where to draw the line between being attracted to a person of a given gender, appearance, racial background etc. because it is the nature of people to be attracted to one another (and sometimes people describe sexual attraction in objectifying terms) versus fetishizing them because of a particular trait.

With the appearances of people who have been traditionally marginalized and stereotyped in western cultures, though, there is a greater potential for harm.

I also wanted to add that not thinking of one's race, of being color blind etc. is a sort of privilege held by the people whose group is so dominant within a society that they think their appearance, culture, experiences etc. are neutral and unremarkable. It's the attitude behind the accusations that people of color are too wrapped up in identity politics.

Anyway, this site has some useful tips and provides some insights into the issue.

https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com%2Fpost%2F95955707903
 

CWNitz

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Oct 22, 2021
Messages
503
Reaction score
605
I have sometimes wondered why it's okay to describe a pretty white girl as having "peaches and cream" complexion
I don't think it's okay, personally, precisely for the reason you stated. We almost never describe men this way. It's fine to be sexually attracted to a person, but reducing them to foodstuff is always pretty objectifying.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Roxxsmom and SWest

vy2022

Registered
Joined
Mar 6, 2022
Messages
11
Reaction score
9
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. :
That sounds absolutely okay with me but like other commentators said, it's hard to know how others will take it.
 

Jazz Club

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 18, 2021
Messages
937
Reaction score
1,035
Location
Northern Ireland
This is interesting. Seems like people think it's OK to describe skin tone objectively but not compare it to food (I always knew that was icky). I was sticking to not mentioning people's skin tones at all and hoping the readers would figure out their ethnicity from their surnames. Or if the surname gives no clue I try to figure out something else e.g. if I mention they have a Carribean accent the reader will assume they're Black (I know there are some white Carribean people but still). I wasn't sure if writing 'dark skin' was OK or not. I was going to say the guy from the Carribean had darker skin than somebody else and then I wasn't sure if that was OK either.

I sometimes describe some of the characters as pasty (well it's not really me saying it, it's the MC in 1st person POV). I never know if pasty is considered offensive. I don't think so (being pasty myself) but it might be for all I know.
 

Tiger1b

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 1, 2022
Messages
136
Reaction score
135
G’day, all.

Great room. Great topic.

I feel it’s part of my job as a writer to see what I see—or have seen—so to speak, and to not only project as much imagery as I can off my characters, but also my feelings toward them. If I’m writing fiction, objectivity or neutrality with regard to a given character are not in the top tier of my motivations. I would want what I write to appeal to a particular readership, not all of humanity.

Just a my take on the matter. Apologies if it offends anyone.

*****
[Add]
It’s actually not the physical descriptions about POCs in fiction that I notice, so much as the cultural or linguistic ones. I’m an Asian American who lived in Asia for several years and I cringe at most of factionalized characters from that country that I’ve read. I can’t go so far as to be offended because I’m not of that country.

Okay, so now y’all have been treated to my $.03.

Cheers
 
Last edited:

Adaephon Delat

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 22, 2022
Messages
165
Reaction score
175
As a black man in his forties who grew up in a world where maybe 90-95% of the characters I saw on tv or read in novels were white, I think this is an important discussion to have. I remember how it burned me to so rarely see someone who looked like me on my favorite shows, or populating my favorite novels. And those few times it did happen, to see them often relegated to the roles of stereotypical sidekicks, gang muscle or comedy relief. The 'black friend', the drug dealer or the pimp.

Things have certainly gotten better, though we still have a long way to go. And part of the process of making things better is to unlearn the default that exists in people's mindsets to this day. To chip away at the idea that the base setting for a descriptor is white. That a person has Anglo or European features unless otherwise specified. But how to do this?

We need to normalize the presence of People of Color in our narratives. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Polynesians, etc. And in mediums relying upon verbal descriptions as ours does, we need to use the power of our words. Simply avoiding the use of color descriptors will only preserve the status quo, for the reasons stated so well by Roxxsmom in this earlier post:
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).
So, we do what we do best as writers. We describe. Black people have skin that runs the gamut from the barest of tans to the darkest of browns. We are not a monolith, but I can tell you I'm personally fine with shades of brown, or descriptions of dark or black skin/complexion. More than fine, actually. I'll be happy with it. Because the color of our skin isn't something to shy away from. There's no shame in it. It's a source of pride. It's part of who we are. And I'll rejoice for the little boy or girl who can see themselves in the characters we write.

The only reason this still makes everyone so uncomfortable is not the color itself, but the history associated with it. But by using color descriptors boldly and authoritatively, as we would any other adjective, we slowly begin to chip away at the sway such associations hold over us. We rewrite the narrative.

We unlearn.
 

Chris P

Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 4, 2009
Messages
20,286
Reaction score
4,019
Location
Wash., D.C. area
I don't think it's okay, personally, precisely for the reason you stated. We almost never describe men this way. It's fine to be sexually attracted to a person, but reducing them to foodstuff is always pretty objectifying.
Ironically, the "tall, dark, and handsome" cliche is applied to men, while paler complexions are for women. Of course this has roots in the ridiculous gender norms where men are supposed to be athletic, outdoorsy bronzed statues and women are to be pampered, delicate flowers. Light-colored ("pasty") white men are thought to be lazy, weak, cowardly, etc. But you're right, I can't think of any foodie comparisons for white men. "Rotisserie gold," maybe?

As a black man in his forties who grew up in a world where maybe 90-95% of the characters I saw on tv or read in novels were white, I think this is an important discussion to have. I remember how it burned me to so rarely see someone who looked like me on my favorite shows, or populating my favorite novels. And those few times it did happen, to see them often relegated to the roles of stereotypical sidekicks, gang muscle or comedy relief. The 'black friend', the drug dealer or the pimp.

Things have certainly gotten better, though we still have a long way to go. And part of the process of making things better is to unlearn the default that exists in people's mindsets to this day. To chip away at the idea that the base setting for a descriptor is white. That a person has Anglo or European features unless otherwise specified. But how to do this?

We need to normalize the presence of People of Color in our narratives. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Polynesians, etc. And in mediums relying upon verbal descriptions as ours does, we need to use the power of our words. Simply avoiding the use of color descriptors will only preserve the status quo, for the reasons stated so well by Roxxsmom in this earlier post:

So, we do what we do best as writers. We describe. Black people have skin that runs the gamut from the barest of tans to the darkest of browns. We are not a monolith, but I can tell you I'm personally fine with shades of brown, or descriptions of dark or black skin/complexion. More than fine, actually. I'll be happy with it. Because the color of our skin isn't something to shy away from. There's no shame in it. It's a source of pride. It's part of who we are. And I'll rejoice for the little boy or girl who can see themselves in the characters we write.

The only reason this still makes everyone so uncomfortable is not the color itself, but the history associated with it. But by using color descriptors boldly and authoritatively, as we would any other adjective, we slowly begin to chip away at the sway such associations hold over us. We rewrite the narrative.

We unlearn.
This is an amazing post, and calls to mind not only the couple years I (a white man from the U.S.) lived in Africa and several years afterward going there for work reasons, but also the African fiction I read. In African fiction (I'm by no means a scholar on the issue--others here will have a more informed perspective), I don't recall the white characters being described as anything other than white, no bowls of rice, no milkiness, nothing like that. Their whiteness more often indicates the character's role: colonizer, expat love interest, missionary, ruling class/wealthy boss-man, or metaphorical for the outside world's manipulation of the continent. This isn't inconsistent with how I was treated in Africa--I was looked at first as the role I was playing than as the person I was. It didn't bother me once I understood that, but I know other people it really did bother. I don't know if more accurate representation in media would have helped that or not for me, but of course I wasn't a white African, and I might feel differently if I was.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Helix

CWNitz

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Oct 22, 2021
Messages
503
Reaction score
605
But you're right, I can't think of any foodie comparisons for white men. "Rotisserie gold," maybe?
Well, there's the six or eight-pack, which in French we call "chocolate bars". But I think it's mostly agreed upon it's also a little trashy to describe your characters that way.