Avoiding Racism for Writers—Coffee, Honey & Other Color Don’ts

No decent, thoughtful human being wants to be accused of racism. Most decent, thoughtful human beings are guilty of racism.

Of course, it’s usually unconscious, and it’s often hard to keep track of evolving language and social movements, of phrases in the vernacular that were perfectly acceptable ten years ago but are now taboo (and vice-versa).

As writers, albeit pros or fanfic writers, or everyone in between, we use our words as tools, as toys, and sometimes, as weapons. It’s our responsibility to listen to new conversations, to keep abreast of the ever-changing socio-political climate, and above all, to think before we ink.

Racism in writing from Nanna’s day

In researching this blog, I looked up a few words that have been used in recent published works, works that have gone through a round of editors and still managed to contain words or phrases that may have been okay when your granny was around, but are now very much unacceptable. Words like exotic, ethnic, oriental, Eskimo, Gypsy. Some of these words can be used in certain contexts, many should be purged from your vocabulary entirely.

These words describe minority groups, terms given to them most often by colonialists, slave-owners, outsiders and persecutors.

Tasty for food, nasty for hues

One of the most common faux pas is to describe skin as food items. I’ve read so many lesbian romances where the tall, hot doctor/barista/art teacher/astronaut is described as having skin like smooth caramel/coffee/honey with creamer/chocolate icing. Not only is this a lazy description, it’s plain ’ole offensive.

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.

This is the same reason you don’t want to describe Asian (and, by the way, Asia consists of people from India, Cambodia, Singapore, Japan and 44 other countries) as having slanted eyes, or being exotic. All this does is imply that white is the norm, and anything that subverts whiteness is other.

‘But it used to be okay’ is not a valid argument; it’s an excuse for racism.

Here’s the thing, language is changing. Thanks to social media, minority groups have voices and are able to talk about what feels comfortable, and how they want to be represented. No one is expected to know everything, or immediately be good at representation.

There are some wonderfully evocative ways to describe people of color without being unintentionally racist or having to sacrifice your creative integrity.

When writing about a character of colour (ESPECIALLY if you’re a white author), visit sites such as:
writingwithcolor.tumblr.com
weareallmixedup.tumblr.com
thisisnotafrica.tumblr.com
thisisnotlatinx.tumblr.com

There are a ton of other resources on the internet, so explore, educate yourselves and have fun writing diversity. Goodness knows we need it! Just remember to be sensitive and thoughtful.

 

Alex K. Thorne graduated from university in Cape Town, South Africa with a healthy love of the classics and a degree in English Literature. She spent the next few years, teaching across the globe, from Serbia to South Korea, also writing fanfiction, and developing a kimchi addiction. When she’s not picking away at her latest writing project, she’s immersing herself in geek culture, taking too many pictures of cats, and dreaming about where next to travel. Alex just published Chasing Stars as part of Ylva’s Superheroine Collection.

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About the Author : Alex K. Thorne

37 Comments

  1. Cristina May 29, 2018 at 18:08 - Reply

    Another great article. Especially this part: “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.”

    There seems to be one exception, at least one that hasn’t been been deemed unacceptable: if you’re a member of the group you’re writing about and there’s a thematic purpose behind the wording. One of my recent favorite books is the wonderful ownvoices young adult fantasy novel “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi. Early in the first chapter, one of the main characters, Zelie, a dark-skinned girl with snow-white hair, describes another person of color she has interactions with as having “coconut-brown skin, so much lighter than my own.” She describes her mentor who has dark skin like her as having “dark brown skin.” The contrast is telling; Zelie likely uses food-for-hue language to describe the skin color of people with lighter complexions because it speaks to the colorism she has been exposed to growing up in the land of Orisha. Zelie lives in a society were dark-skinned people with snow-white hair are discriminated against for many reasons (including because they are capable of using magic), and distinctions like that likely have become ingrained in her people’s minds because it was taught, enforced, and institutionalized.

    • Alex K. Thorne May 29, 2018 at 20:01 - Reply

      Very true, Cristina. I think that there are definitely exceptions, especially within the POC writing community. I wouldn’t want to police to dictate how someone like Tomi Adeyemi for example describes her brown-skinned characters. The difference is that Ms Adeyemi is of course black, and therefore writes from experience and context. So there are exceptions.

  2. Julia Jones Rose May 29, 2018 at 18:10 - Reply

    The first page or two of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” are a bit of an eye opener when it comes to this subject!

    • Alex K. Thorne May 29, 2018 at 20:03 - Reply

      So true. This is a case of evolving language. Was Virginia Woolf being purposefully racist? Maybe. But maybe not. Language that was acceptable 100 years ago is now changing and being called out. Minorities have voices. When Virginia Woolf was writing Orlando, black twitter wasn’t around to say, “Hey now, white lady!”

  3. dellab May 29, 2018 at 18:27 - Reply

    This blog certainly stopped me in my tracks. Ms Thorne is correct to state we are racist though most of us by
    lack of education, current or otherwise. I had never thought about describing a person of colour as something edible to be offensive. I now get it.
    We become comfortable with the status quo in narrative writing. We need to do better research and become more cognizant of ours and others speech patterns.

    • Alex K. Thorne May 29, 2018 at 20:05 - Reply

      That’s really the best we can do as writers – to be aware and educate ourselves. With all the resources on the internet, ignorance is no longer an excuse. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog 🙂

  4. KD Williamson May 29, 2018 at 20:45 - Reply

    Excellent blog. I agree with all this. A sensitivity read added on top.

    • Alex K. Thorne May 29, 2018 at 21:43 - Reply

      Glad to have your thumbs-up, KD! And yes, a sensitivity read is always a good thing!

  5. Annette Mori May 30, 2018 at 04:17 - Reply

    Interesting…I have heard people describe causasion skin as peaches and cream…hmmmm…lips like rasberries, etc and well we do kinda nibble on people and describe how they taste…so I am geniuinely confused by this….Often brown eyes are described as chocolate, coffee, etc…and of course since brown is a dominant color, certainly not only in persons of color…again a food descriptor. So I guess I do wonder. One of my my favorite lines is about letting desire marinate….there are often food analogies uses for many things that I often find appealing…bitter tasting emotions…so many that pull that particular sense to the surface…not to be dense about the issue, but I do wonder why that is not acceptable.

    • Alex K. Thorne May 30, 2018 at 07:23 - Reply

      Hi Annette. Thanks for the comments. You put across some valid points. The difference between calling white skin “peaches and cream” and brown skin “chocolate”, comes down to race, history and subjugation. Food analogies are fine, and can be poetic even, but we have to be careful of fetishizing dark skin. Here is a link that may explain it better: http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/skin-writing-with-color-has-received-several

      I hope this helps 🙂

  6. Angel Adams May 30, 2018 at 14:39 - Reply

    I am so happy that you wrote this blog because as a person of color it is very upsetting to read a story and the POC are described as food stuff. I also get upset when POC’s hair texture is described as coarse or wiry. I was reading a story with POC and I saw those descriptions and I stopped reading the book and I deleted it from my kindle. Thank you so much for writing this because it means a lot to me.

  7. Toadattoadhall May 30, 2018 at 18:09 - Reply

    A really good article that highlights we are being unintentionally offensive due to opening mouth before engaging brain. I suppose the advantage of the written word is that thoughtless phrases can be corrected before going to print and should not appear. Part of the issue is that so many books and articles are being printed the role of editor seems to have almost disappeared.

  8. Annette De Leon June 26, 2018 at 19:46 - Reply

    First off, I would mention that I am a older black woman, and I have no problem with descriptions such as Honey, Coffee, Coffee w cream, etc. I have heard some really bad comparisons in my day. When I read, I need a clear picture of the person being described. If you want to describe a caucasian woman, and use cream, ivory or whatever, why would that bother them? It is just an easy (yes!) description to get a picture, not send a hate message!! Jeez, there are enough badly written books out there to stomp on, don’t give a difficult time to writers that are giving a clear picture of the characters. What do you want to use, taupe, ecru, eggshell or sienna? Come on with picking apart ( to me) descriptions that are less harmful than some really noxious epitaphs. I do understand that sensitivity is important to self worth and common decency, but come now.

    • Alex K. Thorne June 26, 2018 at 19:53 - Reply

      Hi Annette,

      Thanks for your comment. Your opinion is completely valid, and I’m glad that you are okay with those descriptors. The point made in the blog is that not all people of colour are. And so, if even a few people are uncomfortable with what they feel is a sort of fetishism, then I don’t think it’s terribly unfair to ask writers to be sensitive of this. Thanks to social media, more women of colour are able to have their voices heard and have a conversation about how they want to be represented, especially by white authors.

      So again, your opinion is totally valid, but I don’t believe we should disregard other opinions or tell people what they’re allowed to find offensive.

  9. JP December 2, 2018 at 21:58 - Reply

    Interesting read. Though I now have the urge to describe someone as being as pale as an after-dinner mint. The food descriptions is a difficult one I find. On the one hand, they can be quite lazy, but on the other, they can effectively describe a skin tone using common reference points. I’d avoid it personally, but I don’t think they are necessarily bad in themselves, it depends on how it’s done. But we all have different experiential backgrounds and therefore react differently to the way language is sometimes used. in a lot of cases, I don’t think if someone uses a food comparison that they are necessarily being insensitive deliberately or even subconsciously insensitive. It’s more likely that the writers wouldn’t find it offensive themselves and therefore assume others won’t either. However, as you say, as there are people who may find it offensive to some degree and therefore this should be taken into consideration.
    Interestingly, I notice more modern books have far less description and tend to focus on plot, action and dialogue now. Maybe that’s, due to a more politically aware climate, authors are reluctant to focus on physical qualities lest they cause offence… or it could be more because current generations have grown up with TV and Films… I forget my point now. This is precisely why i rarely comment on things

  10. Andrea July 20, 2019 at 17:25 - Reply

    Why does color have to be a thing? Why don’t we stop categorizing and just write about PEOPLE? It is what you do, what you say, what you think that defines a character. Stop with division by color.

  11. AnonymousWombat October 14, 2019 at 03:33 - Reply

    I’m Caucasian, so I can’t at all speak as to whether or not the use of food words for POC skin tones is offensive. It does seem to me, however, that a writer has to balance both the reader’s knowledge for color reference and the perspective of the narrator for descriptions of colors. A character who has never eaten chocolate would not describe a person he meets as having skin that color. However, a character who is a connoisseur of coffee might think someone has skin the shade of Turkish coffee. Myself, I often find when an author uses simple color words, that they ring kind of flat with me. Saying someone has taupe skin makes me think of bland office walls, not skin.
    Also, the caramel and honey skin descriptors, I’ve seen them applied to Caucasian characters with tans, is that okay? And where is the line for accuracy? I mean, milk chocolate is essentially basic brown and could easily be replaced. On the other hand, dark chocolate, the 70% cacao kind, gives a more specific and unique color that I’m not sure there is a better word for (If someone has one, please share!). I guess I’m just not sure how to balance all the needs of accurate description, faithfulness to the character narrating and being respectful of race issues.

    • Elizabeth Mueller August 11, 2020 at 21:14 - Reply

      I wish that the author of this article had shared *how* to describe skin colors other than how *not* to. That’s what brought me to this article.

      I have a Japanese character and my POV character is caucasian–at first glance, he sees her as Asian because, in fact, it’s through HIS point of view; this is through deep point of view so I don’t exactly agree with everything mentioned here. That’s just me. Sigh…

      Any thoughts?

  12. Avery June 4, 2020 at 10:50 - Reply

    So I was discussing some character building with a friend, who took offense when I used the words coffee and cream to describe the characters skin tone. Now, I’m not going to hide, I’m white. So I was ignorant too why she was upset? For two reasons one because on the flip side of things, I have experienced my own races skin color as being described & generalized with words like: snow, ivory, Pearl, peach, cream, flaky, chalk, sugar (if you can believe it), pale, crisp, pink, oatmeal, flour, various berries from raspberry too strawberry, milk, clouds, shades of yellow and white.etc. since I was a child, I was use too it. And frankly none of them bothered me because they were just used too describe a color that I was. The comparisons were even true. My skin does match a peach when placed side by side. Sure I could take offense but ..why? Such an idea to be offended by being associated by a food via my skin tone didn’t exist in my head. Peach was just a fancier word used too describe my skin and it is also an actual color of its own. Milk didn’t bother me either because without any sunlight I could match that too. Which brings me too the second reason, I think the real problem is knowing what is a fetish & what is not. I think it’s ridiculous to be offended if someone uses words like cream too describe someone. But I am not, nor until I read this article was I aware of the food fetish associated with words like chocolate that could be offensive because of the negative history & connotations surrounding that word? I had no idea that someone of color may resent their skin being compared too chocolate because of a food fetish? In fact this confused me because I have a male black friend who often describes his girlfriend as having lovely chocolate skin, (I wonder though if his use of the word has more to do with him being a guy and her a girl then the subject of skin?) He once called me petal white, in a world women rights still seem precarious, now I wonder if I should be offended to be compared too snow, cream, or peaches?? ……i am thankful for this article. But ultimately, I think that in some ways we are all becoming far, far far too sensitive and too focused on our differences. I’m not sure that editing our words too the point we can’t use helpful descriptions like coffee, earth, brown, umber, wood, olive, peach, or milk does us any good in the long run. Too me it feels like the more one focuses on our differences the less we are able too see our similarities, and the more we try too be careful, the less are we able too speak freely and communicate honestly and be accepting. I know I am not a super sensitive person, I don’t mind having my skin compared with food or drink, but then again my mind is fairly free of most fetishes and too me such a comparison is just a description and a tool used too describe what I am. I am white so my skin does look milky. It’s just what I am. It’s not bad or good. It just is. I think that I can appreciate and understand the issue and see how others may get upset, but too me it just feels like even amongst my own color, it’s just a little silly? I mean we are connected to the visual world around us? I can’t help but feel that condemming the use of food,plants, locations and nature in our descriptions only lessons not strengthens our United sense of selves as the human family. Take coffee for example it’s a great tool to help visualize someone because depending on how it’s made, or what kind of coffee it is, and the talent of the writer, it can be used too describe almost anyone, because it comes in a myriad of various colors, even my crazy white self can be described with it due too the amount of cream in it or the frothy fluffy foam on top! I don’t want people to be hurt. However, I think there needs to be a clearer line made between what is actually an intended cruel use of words with a malignant purpose, versus a simple physical logical natural comparison. What means harm, what doesn’t. And I think it’s important too focus not on key individual words or even too peg certain words like exotic as removable, or objectionable, because without the full summary or sentence surrounding the word…well we might as well be reading only a paragraph not the page. I could be wrong…perhaps I am? I’m still evolving as a person…and this is simply what I concluded after seeking answers so I could be a better friend. Thank you for your article it was enlightening though worrisome.

  13. Alex July 15, 2020 at 23:28 - Reply

    Would be offensive to describe someone as having “dark skin” or “brown skin”? If so could I, as a writer just say the ethnicity of the character? I’m really not trying to be racist, I just want to make sure I don’t offend anyone in my writing.

    • Astrid Ohletz July 28, 2020 at 12:19 - Reply

      Hello,

      That’s a good question, and the answer is one that might vary depending on who you ask. As far as we know that word choice is currently acceptable, but it’s possible that could change. Our first suggestion is to remember not to frame white as default, so make sure if you’re describing one colour of skin, you describe them all.

      Other than that, our best advice is to try and engage a sensitivity reader – someone from the minority group that you’re writing about – and make sure that you’re not accidentally using any terms that would be considered problematic. If you’re not at that stage yet, there are excellent community resources like https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/ that might be able to help with general advice and specific questions.

      Hope this helps, and good luck with your writing!

    • Elizabeth Mueller August 11, 2020 at 21:19 - Reply

      Show, don’t tell. One of my POV characters is Mexican-American–all I did was reveal her last name and have her father speak English with an occasional Spanish word: “Mija, how was school today? I hope good, si?” sort of thing.

      I hope this helps…

  14. GI August 14, 2020 at 00:24 - Reply

    Hi, there!
    I’m Hispanic, but I got my mother’s genes so look more like my mom (French, white) then my Latino dad and I’m writing a novel with several main characters. I noticed after rereading my first draft that everyone in my novel kind of looks like me, I just describe it differently. Everyone had brown curls and freckles and that’s it, and I’m sure that was subconsciously racist on my part for creating solely white main characters, so I decided to change that. It’s a novel no one’s really ever going to read, but I try to make them as realistic as possible more for my part because whenever I read books from actual authors and there is a lack of diversity, I get bored. Diversity is beautiful and it’s what makes life more interesting, so I think books should be written with that in mind.
    Anyway, two main characters are gay guys and one is white and the other is black, and the black one (it’s like a fairy tale land so there aren’t like actual ethnicities it’s just like the Fourth Kingdom or the Charmant Kingdom just for context, so I couldn’t say African or African American or Latino) Well, the black prince realizes he’s in love with this white guy and says something cheesy to make him laugh and originally I wrote
    “You’re the vanilla to my chocolate. The Ying to my Yang. We click” But is that offensive? This is how I want to both describe the characters and also say something cheesy as dialogue.
    I agree that in this country we are now politcally very sensitive, but I also think that this is a sign that things are changing for the better. People used to be able to say whatever they wanted about any minority. If you weren’t straight white and male you could have been a target and systemic racism allowed it. Fellow Caucasians allowed it, and even the ones that weren’t blatantly racist were omitting which was just as bad. And so everything had gotten so out of hand, or maybe it was always like this so now we have reached a pinnacle of progress and though there is a long road ahead for politcal correctness for everyone, especially Caucasians here in America but I for one am really happy that we can all just talk about these things and try and understand how to fix what we broke for everyone else.
    I’m trying to learn. I grew up in a mainly Caucasian and Asian community, but because of segregation policies set in Chicago years ago I have very few friends of other ethnicities which I think is a shame because the more diversity the better. I wish people just had common sense, but oh well we’re here now and the only direction we can go is forwards. But we have to keep talking about this. The past must always be remembered so that we can ameliorate the future.
    Anyway thanks for writing this article. I might still just go ahead with the vanilla and chocolate quote because I think I’ve been worrying way too much about this single quote. Heck, I wrote four paragraphs on a website because of it, and I don’t personally think it will offend anyone (no readers, since this is a novel more for me, maybe like three people will read it lol)
    But thank you. Thank you for bringing your perspective into the world and please keep doing so, I appreciate it.
    Though not everyone may agree with each other on everything, it is far better to live in a world with differences than in a world of people that think and talk and look just like me.

  15. Gabrielle Iglesias August 14, 2020 at 00:53 - Reply

    Also, I don’t think describing skin tone and color or lack thereof is a bad thing. All skin is beautiful, and it’s just up to the words one uses to convince everyone else that this is so. It’s a way to envision the characters you bring to life. They have personality and opinions, but they also have a physical being and that should be appreciated equally. We can’t just pretend color doesn’t exist. In my opinion that’s just silly. As Trevor Noah (if you don’t know who he is watch his show 🙂 more comically puts it during the Tomi Lahren interview saying that you don’t see color is like saying you can’t see the red of a stop sign. It’s there and it’s everywhere and it’s amazing, so why pretend it’s not there? Besides, I never understood how everything was termed hundreds of years ago. How is not the right word. Why. Saying that having “white” skin and then saying everyone else is “colored” and non-white set people up for racism since the beginning. It caused a divide among white people and everyone else in a more colloquial sense, which is a very powerful and ingenious way of spreading racism like the disgusting virus that it is. It made so many white people who didn’t know any better think that they were the default, that we are normal and everyone else is just a lesser version of us. Obviously that’s not what I believe but I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite by saying all this stuff and then just assuming I have never been racist. Because I have. Not knowingly. But it is impossible that I haven’t. The subject of race and racism interests me a lot. I think about it every day. How it started. Why it started. Different types of racism. It really is like a virus. Who knew that this year we would not only be combating this virus, this tale as old as time, but Covid-19 as well.
    Thanks.

  16. Richard Browne September 26, 2020 at 22:44 - Reply

    My chief concern is that all of this “sensitivity”, “touchiness”, etc., is a problem with no end in sight. At what point could it be said that racism/sexism/homophobia in language, speech, and behavior is behind us? Might someone always be ready to point an accusing finger at someone and expect condemnation ostracism to follow? We often hear about some action having a “chilling effect” on future behavior. We are facing that possibility.
    This careful policing of words for even the slightest hint of offensive language will not be a good thing for open expression. The same was, and is, true of writers and journalists in the former Soviet Union and today’s China, who are closely watched for any hint of discontent with the government in their writings and speeches.
    While it is a good thing to express dismay with those who use words that are broadly condemned (I won’t give examples), a good thing can often be carried too far, having outlived its original purpose. It then develops an ethos of its own, seeking the kind of “purification” that we saw towards the end of the French Revolution, for example.
    Please, consider carefully what is really needed and what is often hypersensitivity, given equal credibility. When a movement goes past its good, initial goals, but pushes on to criticize fringe matters, then they will lose the support of the majority of observers, whose support they need to continue the advances made.

    • C April 2, 2021 at 00:51 - Reply

      Hello Richard Browne! I’d like to pick apart your concerns a little if I may.

      First off, This article was made with the intentions of recognizing the changing language of today, especially in terms of understanding BIPOC’s opinion’s towards the way they are written in stories. As someone who is apart of that group of people(I’m Black specifically) I believe this article is a good brief summary of the opinions of BIPOC writers and readers. With that being established, I want to look at certain parts of your comment that I can’t say make sense as a response to this article.

      To start off, your “chief concern” is that this article of understanding awareness and being more sensitive to social issues “is a problem with no end in sight.” I’d have to disagree. In terms of understanding how these forms of oppression(racism, homophobia, sexism) are imbued in society, THAT conversation can definitely end. It will end with the closing of these oppressive concepts in our chapter of humanity.

      However in order to want those conversations about sensitivity and oppression to end, we have to work towards it. As famous historical figures have worked towards it, we’ll have to do the same since these forms of oppression still exist. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. ” we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” That sense of nonviolent tension comes from articles such as this one that make aware of the way BIPOC people would like to written: without worrying about offensive language and writing that put care into their representation. In fact, its a little concerning the way your concern seems more about accusations rather than the racism and offensive language that get put into books themselves. But I digress here.

      Next, your “concern” into this sensitivity goes into this point of protecting “open expression” which coupled with your examples of communism, I’m going to safely assume you mean the First Amendment. While freedom of expression is important( especially in times like this where we need to address the social issues going on), I can’t agree with the ties to straight communism that you’ve voiced here. None of this article points towards literal communistic behavior. In fact, this article again raises awareness for the opinions expressed by BIPOC people. Nowhere in this article is the government mass executing people for opposition against it, as seen in history, including the examples you’ve mentioned. In fact, as far as we both know, this article isn’t connected to a government that is hunting down and executing people so this form of concern seems more like a fear-factored opinion that isn’t really applicable to this discussion.

      Again freedom of expression is important, especially in events such as the Holocaust during WWII and the mass enslaving of Black people that occurred. In those cases(one without the First Amendment and one with), the need to express disapproval of the prejudice that certain people faced was entirely important, as it helps understand that oppression is wrong and unjustifiable in any situation. In the latter example, freedom of expression helped Black people, not lead to a government that kills people for opinions against it. Please note that the “open expression” mentioned in my aforementioned examples was used in a good way, to raise awareness for minorities. That was deliberate.

      In fact, worry about communistic behavior has been a occurring event in the United States where people were unjustly put into prisons. Look at the Red Scares, and the McCarthy Era, where worry about communism was weaponized, often against activists who advocated for fair treatment(labor activists). The first Red Scare of the 1920’s unjustly deported many people such as Europeans and Eastern Asians who came to this country to find their own form of the American Dream that is often promised to foreigners.

      Now your last couple of sentences is definitely something I express vehement disagreement with. You dictate “when a movement goes past its good, initial goals,” what movement are you referring too? Is it all of them? Because they all seem to me to have legitimate reasons as to why they are needed. And I promise you, those movements gather ACTIVISTS and ALLIES, who put in effort to progress the movements themselves, not self-serving observers who only care as long as it’s not a change they can make in their lives. In fact, when have “observers” helped with anything? they observe, not do anything for the movements. Observers didn’t help Black people obtain the Civil Rights they needed, more often than not they were just a “white moderate” that wanted to push away change, not do anything to help. It was the people that wrote articles in the newspapers, the people who marched and protested, the people who raised awareness that made the change. Observers did what they do best: observe and do nothing while the advances are being made by people who worked towards it. No one needs the support of “the majority of observers,” who do nothing and complain. That’s what twitter is for.

      Now, I’m going to have to ask you to do the same thing that you asked the writer to do. Please consider what is really needed and what is often hypersensitivity, given equal credibility, because communism isn’t a concern that was needed to be expressed. This article is literally helping white writers as well as other writers write characters that allow for the complex representation that BIPOC people deserve. Thank you for your time.

      Oh and if you would like to know where the Martin Luther King Jr. quote came from, its from his ” A Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
      Here’s a link if you’d like to read it: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw_0.pdf

  17. […] In researching how to respectfully describe characters of color, I’ve encountered many voices saying “Don’t use food-related words for anything about them, especially hair, skin, or eye color.” (I’m paraphrasing from several sources, but as this concept is not at all my idea, here are a few to check out.) […]

  18. Alpha October 17, 2020 at 05:42 - Reply

    Look up “shades of brown” on google images. See how many shades of brown are named as edible items.
    Then do the same with other colors. I checked quite a few, and brown seems to be the one with the proportionally highest share. I think this is partially a matter of circumstance, but I do appreciate the consideration that describing any skin tone with a food or other edible item could imply that the person is “yummy.” If the character is underage… yeah, yuck, definitely choose other words. But if it’s a romance novel with adult characters, I’m pretty sure it’s par for the course to describe the romantic interests in whatever way is most enticing.

  19. Liz November 22, 2020 at 09:41 - Reply

    I know this article is two years old, but felt a need to point something out.

    Describing a pale or white person’s skin as “milky white” isn’t uncommon. It’s actually the one I’m most familiar with. There’s also descriptors of haur being “honey blonde” or “strawberry blonde”. Again, almost always referring to white people.

    I’m not sure where the myth came from that it’s only used for minorities, but it’s just not true. I was described as having honey blonde hair as a child and teenager. I never considered it offensive, or fetishizing anything.

    It’s fine if you don’t like this trend in general, but it’s not racist. It just *is*. Across the spectrum of humanity and writing.

  20. Christopher December 12, 2020 at 16:20 - Reply

    Very illuminating! I am part through Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ and noticed the ‘coffee coloured’ description used re Shadow so I thought that I’d try to find out what it actually meant. I would thought that it was just a neutral term to convey a shade but now I know better. Whilst on the subject, ‘Hunter’ in Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ is described with the term ‘burnt caramel’. Considering that all three are, at the very least, have something admirable about them it would seem that the author intended no ill. I was reading John Buchan books recently and a metaphorical clothes peg on my nose for the terms used and as for H C McNeile…!
    I’ll sign off as Chris the Honky if that’s alright.

  21. Tomas December 23, 2020 at 19:08 - Reply

    You’re being disingenuous with after-dinner mints or boiled rice. Of course no one would use those words to describe white skin for the simple reason that those items aren’t enticing. However, published books are full of descriptions like “milk” or “peach” skin which would be a much more apt example with regards to fetishizing.

  22. Cam NA December 29, 2020 at 07:14 - Reply

    Personally, the reason I dislike the coffee and honey metaphors is that I have very little idea what color they mean. Plus their overuse.

    And I have do take issue with the point about it being weird to compare white people to food. I agree that exotic is basically impossible to write in a way without unfortunate implications.
    Now I’m no expert, but don’t most people have almond shaped eyes? It doesn’t seem that distinguishing to me.

    I followed the links and came to the Buzzfeed page with metaphors for white people’s skin and I have to say, a lot of them were excellent.
    -“What’s your name?” he asked. “Mary,” she replied as the strap of her dress slipped off her marzipan shoulder.
    -She didn’t know it yet but the girl of her dreams had just walked in. Her eyes were radiant and her skin glowed with mozzarella undertones.
    -She had brown, wiry hair and skin that can only be described as the color of the inside of an apple.
    – His bones were as brittle as a vanilla wafer.
    Those are all effective at conveying colors to me. I especially like the marzipan one.

  23. Christopher December 29, 2020 at 12:45 - Reply

    Further thoughts; what about a ‘milky complexion’ or ‘olive’ skin? Both of these a re used for ‘Europeans’.
    I also remember an elderly, author of sickly sentimental romantic novels whose skin looked the skin on a Brie or Camembert; could these terms be used in describing her? It certainly wouldn’t have been flattering so what about ageism in these matters?

  24. Crystal January 15, 2021 at 17:13 - Reply

    Thanks for posting this thread. Whether we think people are being over-sensitive or not (I think not) writers should be aware of how their descriptions make their readers feel. Physically describing females as food or edible things, especially from a male perspective can also be off-putting as a female. We can probably agree that relating color to food is really overdone in writing. Finding fresh, creative ways to describe people can only make your writing more vibrant, and make it attractive to more readers. I came across this wonderful post all about different ways to describe color that isn’t food-related. Hope it helps. https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/words-for-skin-tone-how-to-describe-skin-color

  25. Jim January 28, 2021 at 16:06 - Reply

    I have collected various newspaper articles between 1930-1936 where the sports writers use all types of descriptions for Afro-American. The one I plan on including in my story is Dusky. Since my work is strictly based on the weaving these articles together ( historical …completely true) should I consider not using that term for my characters?

  26. olog-hai June 30, 2021 at 22:23 - Reply

    So everyone is guilty of thoughtcrime?

    What people dislike is to be falsely accused of racism. Look in the mirror, with all due respect.

  27. […] At the risk of sounding like a broken record, don’t forget to actually describe the character. The reader should be able to recognize your character in your story. That is, if you were to show them the photo, they should be able to pick out which character the photo represents. Take the time to describe what your character looks like, using the words your character would find appropriate. This is especially important if the character does not look like you. Find a sensitivity reader if you need one—somebody with the relevant background or experience—and find a way to compensate them for their time and labor. If this sounds like a lot, check out some resources put together by Ylva Publishing. […]

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