Is this description unlikely to give offense?

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kinokonoronin

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Did you read The Wizard of Earthsea? How did you see the characters there?
Earthsea cycle is probably my favorite fantasy series. And I love this question. The answer can be very revealing.

Black people have skin that runs the gamut from the barest of tans
I feel seen. 😅 Half-black, half-white, (so black by the one-drop rule) I pass for latino. In school, sometimes bilingual kids would speak to me in Spanish. Had no idea what they were saying, except by context clues (people reach out a certain way when they want a pen/pencil).

avoiding the use of color descriptors will only preserve the status quo
I wonder if this is doubly so for white characters. What I mean is that the status quo likely can't be disrupted until we start describing the colors of white characters, otherwise it remains codified as the default value, the thing that is meant by silence.
 

Adaephon Delat

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I wonder if this is doubly so for white characters. What I mean is that the status quo likely can't be disrupted until we start describing the colors of white characters, otherwise it remains codified as the default value, the thing that is meant by silence.
Excellent point. Yes, I believe this is a necessary part of the process as well.
 

Tiger1b

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I wonder if this is doubly so for white characters. What I mean is that the status quo likely can't be disrupted until we start describing the colors of white characters, otherwise it remains codified as the default value, the thing that is meant by silence.
I’d think that a large part would depend on the POV of who’s is doing the describing or from whose POV a given subject is being observed.
 

Tiger1b

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Um, nah. I don't think we (white writers) get to hide behind "my MC sees 'white' as the default so I can let my readers do the same."
Um, yah. You can certainly choose what you do not want to hide behind if you wish. If all your MCs are as enlightened as you, that’s great. I will not pick of the perspectives of my characters based on how people should look at one another. No offense.
 

Roxxsmom

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It's certainly true that white characters living in some times and places are going to be more likely to see whiteness as a default (one reason it's nice to write speculative fiction--I can make up society's rules and norms), though they certainly notice more subtleties about the appearance of a fellow White person than they likely would about someone they think of as a different race.

There are ways one can handle this without breaking viewpoint, though. For instance, showing the consequences of a character's blindness. Even if the character doesn't make the connection about why things are happening in certain ways, the reader can. For instance, if the viewpoint character fails to tell two Black people apart, have them end up looking like a chump for it.

I remember reading a book once where the protagonist was a fairly self absorbed and somewhat sexist man. He didn't mean to be an idiot about women, but he was obsessed with their appearance and just didn't quite see them as having the same degree of internal life as he did. Women were always annoyed with him, and they typically gave him the brush off in the story, and even though he had no idea why, it was pretty clear to me.
 

mccardey

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ETA: Oh dear, I do go on don't I? I'm like the eagerest whitesplainer ever.
 
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Tiger1b

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By the way, I neither said nor suggested that white as default is something I would do, as I am not white. There are many POVs at work in many kinds of fiction, not the least of which are the authors’ own. I’m simply suggesting that these perspectives need not follow the same rules, no matter how enlightened or inclusive they may be.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my current MC is not not “white” not perfect nor does she ever want to be.
 

Tiger1b

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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.)
This.
 

lizmonster

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Um, yah. You can certainly choose what you do not want to hide behind if you wish. If all your MCs are as enlightened as you, that’s great. I will not pick of the perspectives of my characters based on how people should look at one another. No offense.
I didn't read Meg's statement like this at all.

Nobody has to do anything. You don't have to talk about anybody's skin tone if you don't want to. But describing the skin tones of only non-white characters makes a statement, whether the author intends it or not (and I suspect most don't). If your characters are all white? Yeah, probably doesn't make a difference there, but as a reader I'm going to be curious about your worldbuilding.

There are no description police. Write however you like. Personally, though - as a writer, when I make an exception of something, I like to do it consciously, and with purpose.
 

Tiger1b

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There are no description police. Write however you like. Personally, though - as a writer, when I make an exception of something, I like to do it consciously, and with purpose.
With respect, I am writing what I like because there are no word police. And all of my writing is done consciously and with purpose.

If a non-Asian character is intimate with someone of Asian descent then, yes, they will notice so-called ethnic features if they are not used to them. The same is true the other way around—and both perspectives would be shared by me with readers (if any) if they add to the story.

How did you read Meg’s comment? For me, “um” differs from “duh” in spelling but very little else.
 

lizmonster

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With respect, I am writing what I like because there are no word police.

So am I. And I will read - and not read - what I like.

With respect.

ETA: As I read what you’re saying - and I may be as guilty of misreading as you are - the only way I know your protag is white is when they remark on how non-white their lover is. Do I have that right?

Because we all notice skin tone. White people notice white skin tones as well - ruddy, tanned, leathered, ashen, pale, etc. As you are deliberate with your words, I’m sure you know there are ways to describe white people without writing “I, a white person, got on the subway.”
 
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Meg Wilson

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Nobody is challenging your writing. Nobody is saying your writing in particular is problematic. We (or at least I) haven't seen your writing.

What I'm challenging are your words: "I’d think that a large part would depend on the POV of who’s is doing the describing or from whose POV a given subject is being observed."

It's important to distinguish the writer's assumptions from the MC's assumptions. Writing a clueless white MC, even from first-person POV, a writer still has choices that can indicate to the reader that another character is white. The writer's hands are not tied.

So the writer is still making a choice to write white-as-the-norm or not. If they are choosing to write white-as-the-norm, well, then, that's what they are choosing.
 

Unimportant

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How did you read Meg’s comment? For me, “um” differs from “duh” in spelling but very little else.
For me, "um" or "erm" means "well, I'm not sure I agree with you, maybe let's discuss this, let me tell you my thoughts....". "Duh" means "You idiot, EVERYONE knows this".

Maybe it's a regional thang.
 

Unimportant

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If a non-Asian character is intimate with someone of Asian descent then, yes, they will notice so-called ethnic features if they are not used to them. The same is true the other way around—and both perspectives
I wonder if this is doubly so for white characters. What I mean is that the status quo likely can't be disrupted until we start describing the colors of white characters, otherwise it remains codified as the default value, the thing that is meant by silence.

I do agree that humans tend to notice things that are different from themselves. If a white person blushes, gets sunburnt, gets an awesome tan, has an acne outbreak, has psoriasis, etc, I'll notice their skin. (Forgot to say: I'm white. Pasty white person.) If someone isn't white, I'll notice their skin tone and based on that plus other physical features will mentally tag an ethnicity -- black, Indian, Asian, Tongan, Maori, whatever. I don't deliberately or even consciously do it, but I know I do it.

I can't imagine a story featuring Unimportant the White person:

Unimportant entered the store. Three people were standing in line by the cashier. An older black man with thick grey hair fumbled his credit card into the reader. Behind him, a brown-skinned Indian woman readjusted her sari. At the end of the line lounged a woman with banana-flesh-coloured skin who was plopping her sixth? no, seventh, box of condoms into her basket.

So, IMO, describing every character's skin tone would be -- out of character. But, equally, writing a story set in a multicultural society where every character is white is -- unrealistic.
 

Tiger1b

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So am I. And I will read - and not read - what I like.

With respect.

ETA: As I read what you’re saying - and I may be as guilty of misreading as you are - the only way I know your protag is white is when they remark on how non-white their lover is. Do I have that right?

Because we all notice skin tone. White people notice white skin tones as well - ruddy, tanned, leathered, ashen, pale, etc. As you are deliberate with your words, I’m sure you know there are ways to describe white people without writing “I, a white person, got on the subway.”
Okay… I’m taking it down a notch. Because, yes, I do respect you… Though I am wondering where you picked up the notion that I was trying to tell you what to read…?

You have that right.

However, the character (who is not the protagonist) may not be white, they are just not Asian. Part of what I would add to this discussion is that there doesn’t always have to be someone white in the picture. As for my protagonist, I would cover her ethnicity early on in a character description. If she’s presented in a first-person narrative, then through her family history, place of origin, language, etc. which she would describe on her own.

Character descriptions may also come in the form of conversations they have with each other, in which they compliment each other’s features. I’ve had more than one such discussion and no one was ever offended.
 

kinokonoronin

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I’d think that a large part would depend on the POV of who’s is doing the describing or from whose POV a given subject is being observed.
This may be relevant for close POV writing: I'd argue the average prose fiction does not limit descriptive text to POV observation. Good point of discussion for that sort of writing though.

there doesn’t always have to be someone white in the picture
I've been saying this for years!
 
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Tiger1b

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I do agree that humans tend to notice things that are different from themselves. If a white person blushes, gets sunburnt, gets an awesome tan, has an acne outbreak, has psoriasis, etc, I'll notice their skin. (Forgot to say: I'm white. Pasty white person.) If someone isn't white, I'll notice their skin tone and based on that plus other physical features will mentally tag an ethnicity -- black, Indian, Asian, Tongan, Maori, whatever. I don't deliberately or even consciously do it, but I know I do it.

I can't imagine a story featuring Unimportant the White person:

Unimportant entered the store. Three people were standing in line by the cashier. An older black man with thick grey hair fumbled his credit card into the reader. Behind him, a brown-skinned Indian woman readjusted her sari. At the end of the line lounged a woman with banana-flesh-coloured skin who was plopping her sixth? no, seventh, box of condoms into her basket.

So, IMO, describing every character's skin tone would be -- out of character. But, equally, writing a story set in a multicultural society where every character is white is -- unrealistic.

Yes, absolutely unrealistic. However your description wouldn’t be out of place if Unimportant was describing the ethnic milieu of the place.

“Unimportant entered the store.” [Not for the first time, he took in the ethnic and cultural flavor (yes, this is a food reference, don’t kill me) and realized how much he had missed growing up surrounded by other caucasians. “Three people were….”
 

lizmonster

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However, the character (who is not the protagonist) may not be white, they are just not Asian.

The point people are trying to get across is that in many Western cultures - including the US - a character undescribed will be assumed to be white. (A character described will also often be assumed to be white. I know this first hand.)

Part of what I would add to this discussion is that there doesn’t always have to be someone white in the picture. As for my protagonist, I would cover her ethnicity early on in a character description. If she’s presented in a first-person narrative, then through her family history, place of origin, language, etc. which she would describe on her own.

If I understand you, you're saying you do specify the character's ethnicicty at some point in the narrative, in which case I am not sure where the argument is.
 

Tiger1b

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Nobody is challenging your writing. Nobody is saying your writing in particular is problematic. We (or at least I) haven't seen your writing.

What I'm challenging are your words: "I’d think that a large part would depend on the POV of who’s is doing the describing or from whose POV a given subject is being observed."

It's important to distinguish the writer's assumptions from the MC's assumptions. Writing a clueless white MC, even from first-person POV, a writer still has choices that can indicate to the reader that another character is white. The writer's hands are not tied.

So the writer is still making a choice to write white-as-the-norm or not. If they are choosing to write white-as-the-norm, well, then, that's what they are choosing.
Of course, nobody is challenging my writing. So far, there has been nothing presented here that would give me an idea like that.

I think I’m not understanding something here.

If you could provide a quote in which a Caucasian person’s ethnicity is gathered through an assumption and not a description, I would appreciate it if you’d post it. As it is, I do not grok what you’re trying to put across in your last two paras.
 

lizmonster

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If you could provide a quote in which a Caucasian person’s ethnicity is gathered through an assumption and not a description, I would appreciate it if you’d post it. As it is, I do not grok what you’re trying to put across in your last two paras.

It's a known phenomenon that readers - including non-white readers - will assume an undescribed character is white.

This is obviously not true of all readers (or all markets), but it's enough of an issue that solutions like describing everybody, regardless of ethnicity, is proposed as a simple and sensible way of making teeny tiny inroads into addressing the issue.
 

Brigid Barry

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Deleted. I am trying to do this on my phone and missed two pages of great dialogue in which everything was said.

Writing with Color is a fantastic resource.
 
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mccardey

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If you read the Writing with Color page, which I HIGHLY recommend, comparing a person of color's skin with food can be considered fetishist, and (also according to the page) coffee and chocolate were industries that exploited enslaved people. So yes, worry about it, and please don't do it. The page also goes in depth about skin colors and tones and how to vividly describe someone.
Cannot recommend Writing with Color enough. It also includes appropriate and inappropriate ways to describe hair, which is another Big Thing.
People of color can describe themselves however they want, if you're okay with being described as peaches and cream or having creamy skin that's up to you (and this was addressed I believe in Writing with Color's Q&A section).

Writing with Color.
I think Cath's point was that the effect of the food-type description is inconsistent (fine for white people, not fine otherwise) but the fact that it is hurtful to some is reason enough not to do it at all.