If white people were described like people of colour in books

Brian G Turner

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Before anyone replies, please note that this is a WRITING discussion in the WRITING section, and that the link in question satirises how some white writers use clumsy food metaphors to describe non-white skin colours.

If you're offended by any perceived socio-political bias in the article linked to, remember that everyone has their own socio-political biases - but not everyone has the privilege of not having to question them.

If you do feel outraged for being challenged to question them, hold that feeling and consider that clumsy writing on racial issues can provoke the same emotion in your audience. If you want to be a better writer you'll probably want to learn to recognise and challenge your own inherent biases.

In the meantime, I've removed all previous posts from this thread because I was disgusted by the direction it went it. If you want to post about how stupid it is that non-white people might get upset at descriptions of non-white characters in fiction, then do so elsewhere on the internet.
 

Brian G Turner

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That last one in the first link reminded me of the Sci-fi channel adaptation of Earthsea where the whole cast (barring one) was white!
 

aThenian

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Didn't read the earlier posts so hope nothing that follows offends.

I read a friend's WIP recently and didn't pick up at all that one of the characters was black – despite some clues of the caramel/nut brown descriptive variety that is being mocked above – until there was a racist remark by another character in the book. At which point I felt a real sense of shock – I just hadn't though that character was black. So it's a tricky one, because I guess a lot of readers will default think characters are white or whatever their cultural norm is, and do need to have it pointed out somehow or other (in my defense, from the setting it was likely that all the characters would have white – most of them were). I think it's maybe better to have a more straightforward “X was black” approach, just stated by the narrator or POV character from the start, rather than all the subtle descriptive stuff (or food cliches) – especially as a lot of readers, like me, often skim read description. That's assuming that it isn't revealed from the dialogue or other aspects of the character, which would maybe be ideal – but people don't of course always speak or behave differently according to ethnicity.


I also read the entire Earthsea series without picking up that Ged was dark-skinned – haven't gone back to check, but again, I'd guess Le Guin went in for the subtle descriptive approach that's easy (for me anyway) to miss. Mind you, I'm not sure I actually thought of Ged as any particular colour – I'm not a very visual reader. I have no problem at all imagining Hermione Grainger as black – don't understand at all why people were upset about that idea. Once you think of it as possibility, it makes sense.
 

Toby Frost

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I think the second article is very good and well worth a look. Thanks for linking to it. Perhaps it is because I am old enough to remember how-to books before they intented the internet and Buffy-speak, I find that a lot of how-to-write articles on the internet are written in a sort of sarky, ironic style, and put being entertaining above being informative (which may well be necessary to get people to read them). This is a problem that I have with a lot of writing tips on the internet: in being witty, they lose a lot of the clarity that's required to really show people how to improve their writing. A textbook might not be fun, but at least it's clear. That same style can easily sound like the writer patronising the reader ("You're doing it all wrong, and I'm going to tell you why"), which runs the risk of being offputting. When the subject is a prickly "issues" one like race, it's even more risky.
 

HareBrain

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I've had a few thoughts about this, which might or might not build into something coherent.

One was that I wondered if people choose food metaphors (where they do: I can't say I've come across many) because there aren't many other ways of differentiating between exact shades of brown that many readers would be familiar with. Who, for example, would know how beech wood compared to oak in colour? Or raw umber versus burnt umber, etc?

Having said that, I don't know why writers would feel the need to be so exact about the colour of a character's skin (or hair, or hat) unless it was particularly striking to the POV character. But when using food, that raises the problem of why the viewpoint character thinks of someone else's skin in those terms? It suggests the desire to taste, and this could be romantic or creepy, depending on context. What it isn't is neutral. (Even before taking into account the thing about commodities.)

Someone in the thread's previous incarnation raised the example of "peaches and cream" to describe a white skin, but I think that's equally non-neutral. Would anyone use it of a male character, for example? I can't see that happening (though I'd be happy to be pointed towards examples). And if it's used only of women, rather than men who share the exact same skin-tone, why?

In a writing context, I think the key thing is to be aware, especially when editing, of what your choice of words might be conveying, chiefly about the POV character.
 
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Zebra Wizard

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The first article is just mocking a style of descriptions. It's not saying whether it's right or wrong.

So it's a tricky one, because I guess a lot of readers will default think characters are white or whatever their cultural norm is, and do need to have it pointed out somehow or other (in my defense, from the setting it was likely that all the characters would have white – most of them were). I think it's maybe better to have a more straightforward “X was black” approach, just stated by the narrator or POV character from the start, rather than all the subtle descriptive stuff (or food cliches) – especially as a lot of readers, like me, often skim read description. That's assuming that it isn't revealed from the dialogue or other aspects of the character, which would maybe be ideal – but people don't of course always speak or behave differently according to ethnicity.
I think this is why its advised to use flowery descriptions in moderation, and making sure you use words that convey a clear image to the reader. If someone said "wheat colored hair" You'd think, is that blonde or brown? or blondie brown? Words that are actually linked to colors may convey the image better, e.g. Olive skinned (both a color and fruit).

I personally just use simple words for skin. Pale, Tanned, Dark. otherwise it becomes gratuitous especially if you want to describe hair, clothing and other features too.

I've been dwelling on a problem for a while because I want to include racial terms in my fantasy novel that my characters can throw around without them sounding out of place or cheesy. Pretty much half of the populace is black and the other is white. The only one I'm happy with is Pigskin (for the white)
 

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a couple of questions

1 - @The Bluestocking as you find oriental offensive I will endeavor to remember not to use it and would ask forbearance should I slip-up (it is an awkward one since in the UK especially this is not considered offensive unlike certain other words...)

2 - My issue is that describing someone as Asian puts them very firmly in the Indian Subcontinent and helps get a general idea of what their ethnicity is (which can be pertinent to a character), describing someone as Oriental gives a very different take on ethnicity (is it maybe analogous to Nordic vs Mediterranean?).
 

Zebra Wizard

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The Oriental issue stems from when Americans started using it as a derogatory term, it supposedly banned in washington state. So clearly it is seen as an offense. And yes it is just so hard to believe that in one country it is, yet in another its freely used without a problem. Even I need to start being careful using it even though I myself am "Oriental" this was the first time I heard of this too.

2 - My issue is that describing someone as Asian puts them very firmly in the Indian Subcontinent and helps get a general idea of what their ethnicity is (which can be pertinent to a character), describing someone as Oriental gives a very different take on ethnicity (is it maybe analogous to Nordic vs
Mediterranean?).
This is from a british standpoint. Probably because theres alot larger presence of indian/pakistani/bangaladeshi people here. In US, Asian is largely referred to east asians. Doubly confusing because east asian is quite specific the "word that shall not be named", so what do you refer to indians etc? brown people?? west asian/middle asian?

Don't reply to this, as I do not want to derail the thread again, hopefully this clears things up.
 

Mirannan

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Zebra: Quite simple IMHO. I agree that "Asian" is an ethnic description rather easy to misunderstand, as Asia is a big place and, strictly, "Asian" covers everyone from South Asians (Indians and Pakistanis, mostly) to the ethnic group which is largely found in East Asia comprising Chinese, Japanese and Koreans among others.

I would suggest that, if one wants to be a little clearer, one ought to refer to East and South Asians as distinct groups. It isn't perfect, of course, but no ethnic generalisations are.

Incidentally, there is a similar situation in Africa. "Black" covers everyone from Xhosa and similar peoples (used to be called Bantu but that's probably un-PC now) to Zulus, Masai and Ethiopians/Somalians/Eritreans. All have dark skin to differing degrees, but they are otherwise very different. Which matters, because (for example) Xhosa and Zulus hate each other.
 

Zebra Wizard

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Zebra: Quite simple IMHO. I agree that "Asian" is an ethnic description rather easy to misunderstand, as Asia is a big place and, strictly, "Asian" covers everyone from South Asians (Indians and Pakistanis, mostly) to the ethnic group which is largely found in East Asia comprising Chinese, Japanese and Koreans among others.
It's much less to do with actual ethnic groups (pakistan and india fought all the time and have different religions), but these terms are simple used to categorise appearance. black, white, hispanic etc, it's meant to be neutral.

Most racist/offensive terms are often targeting a specific ethnic group and born during times of conflict and fear.

There are always people out there that are sensitive about being represented in bad light. But it doesn't mean you can't do it. You can have a villianous character of an ethnic minority, you can have one ethnic group fighting another and committing atrocities. There will always be someone out there who will be offended, just like when people went crazy over GRRM rape scenes, yet it's still a decision he still stands firmly by. Was it "wrong"? Nope. It is simply a design choice.

What you do need to be careful is that you don't display ethnic minorities with ignorance or with racist intent/propaganda. For example having a black person who eats fried chicken, rice and peas or an indian character smelling like curry.

A great example is in the better WW2 movies/media show alot of german soldiers are just regular people some good and some bad, and same on the allied side, nor did it shy away from the terrible acts some of the nazi's did. The incorrect way would be to show the entire german army as evil monsters, as they were depicted/viewed after the war.
 

Brian G Turner

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Going back to description of colour in our writing - in my WIP1 I describe skin colour only three times, and made sure that the first one was "white".

I was tempted to use "pale" - it would have been more in keeping with the Mediterranean-inspired setting - but I wanted to be explicit to readers that white is not the default colour for my characters.

The other two descriptions are "olive" and "dark bronze", both of which seemed suitable for a mediaeval fantasy. I try to keep references and metaphors to the POV character experience.

However, there is a danger in believing that varied skin colour = varied ethnicity. That comes with the world-building, IMO.
 

The Bluestocking

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Going back to description of colour in our writing - in my WIP1 I describe skin colour only three times, and made sure that the first one was "white".

I was tempted to use "pale" - it would have been more in keeping with the Mediterranean-inspired setting - but I wanted to be explicit to readers that white is not the default colour for my characters.

The other two descriptions are "olive" and "dark bronze", both of which seemed suitable for a mediaeval fantasy. I try to keep references and metaphors to the POV character experience.

However, there is a danger in believing that varied skin colour = varied ethnicity. That comes with the world-building, IMO.
Have you read Max Gladstone's books? He is extremely skillful at depicting a very diverse cast of characters (including ethnicity) in ways that are integral to the story :)
 

Mirannan

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Zebra - I have a bee in the bonnet about the term "asian" specifically. As already noted, it means something entirely different to most Americans than to most Brits. (Presumably because there are more people from China in the USA and more people from South Asia in Britain.) I think one ought to get into the habit of being more specific. After all, Indians and Japanese are really rather different - for example.
 

Locrian

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In my WIP I haven't specified any skin colours. Many of the characters have ethnic surnames and I've left it at that, though because they have those surnames doesn't necessarily mean that's where they are from. There are reasons for this off the page in my world building; centuries of migration and colonisation throughout the solar system. Also, I describe characters in terms of the perception of them that the POV character has of them, more about their personality than their appearance because their appearance isn't really important. I'd rather let the reader decide what my characters look like and get on with characterizing them.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Zebra - I have a bee in the bonnet about the term "asian" specifically. As already noted, it means something entirely different to most Americans than to most Brits. (Presumably because there are more people from China in the USA and more people from South Asia in Britain.) I think one ought to get into the habit of being more specific. After all, Indians and Japanese are really rather different - for example.
What has this got to do with books or writing - which is specifically what this thread's about as reminded several times.

For me, I write about people. I have lots of different people in my books (although I have a bias towards white, partly because of my NI stuff where there are few other ethnicities) and most of the time don't see the need to describe them in any detail.
 

Brian G Turner

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Have you read Max Gladstone's books? He is extremely skillful at depicting a very diverse cast of characters (including ethnicity) in ways that are integral to the story :)
Cheers for the recommendation - I'll take a look. :)

It's interesting to see that Lee Child tends to describe skin colour for all his characters - white is not used as a default, either.
 

Zebra Wizard

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Zebra - I have a bee in the bonnet about the term "asian" specifically. As already noted, it means something entirely different to most Americans than to most Brits. (Presumably because there are more people from China in the USA and more people from South Asia in Britain.) I think one ought to get into the habit of being more specific. After all, Indians and Japanese are really rather different - for example.
I asked a pakistani friend of mine, and he didn't even know himself. He said south asian is probably the best.

Do editors actually change the word asian to oriental and vice versa when publishing UK/US editions?

I often see american authors just write "the asian man", which (before the internet) I would automatically picture a south asian person. so yea it is a bit of a problem. I can't off the top of my head think of a good way to describe it quickly and to the point, south asian sounds really clunky, vague and probably confusing.
 

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I think it's fairly clearly satire. It's explicitly making fun of the way white writers use food to describe non-white skin. It doesn't seem funny, and is perhaps offensive to some, but that's likely because it's making some reader uncomfortable that they are being described in such terms and don't like it very much. If so, the article's done it's job. If it seems absurd to you that your skin colour is being described with awkward food metaphors, then perhaps others feel the same when we describe their skin colour in awkward food metaphors.

For me, that's why I describe everyone's skin tone and only use three skin colours: white, olive, brown.

Von Luschan's scale and the Fitzpatrick scale are helpful.

And bringing an American perspective into this, there's also the question of black slavery and the very solid connection to describing non-white people in terms of commodities. Coffe, cocoa, chocolate, tobacco, etc.
 
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