Avoiding Racism for Writers—Coffee, Honey & Other Color Dont’s

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:

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


  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

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