All right. You’ve done your homework and you’re ready to write a character whose skin color is different from your own. How do you go about describing him or her in your book?
Right off the bat, I’m going to direct you to a couple of resources that will be far more useful to you than I will be. The first is Writing With Color, and the second is Writing the Other. Both of these are fantastic sites that can answer just about any question you have.
I do, however, want to share a few guidelines that I’ve found very helpful:
- Don’t describe people of color using food. I’ve been guilty of this myself (coffee-colored skin, chocolate hair, etc.), thinking I was using more concrete descriptors. The problem is that drawing a connection between a person and a type of food is fetishizing and dehumanizing, especially because these specific foods (cocoa, coffee, etc.) were central to the slave trade and comparisons to them are embedded in a long history of racial oppression. Read more here. (Oh, and don’t describe Asians as having almond eyes.)
- Avoid calling someone “dark.” For a wonderful range of word choices for describing skin tone, go here. Just remember not to overdo it. Sticking with “brown” is perfectly fine. Think about how many words you use to describe the skin color of your white characters and use that as your guide.
- On that note, make sure you’re not only describing skin color when it isn’t white. When this happens in books, it suggests that white is the default and other skin colors are not. Read more about this and other offensive mistakes to watch out for here.
- To avoid potential whitewashing, introduce your character’s race as early as possible in the text. You may also need to use other indicators: cultural markers, dress, name, hair texture and style, and voice (but avoid writing accents). See more here.
- Speaking of hair, you’ll need to do your homework in this category as well. You can read about the wide range of styles for Afro/curly hair here. Make sure you don’t use derogatory words like “unkempt,” “wild,” “nappy,” “wooly,” or any other descriptors suggesting that Afro hair needs to be tamed or is “other”/ not human.
There’s so much more to this topic, but I’m not the person you should be listening to, so instead I hope you’ll take the time to dive into the resources I’ve linked to above.
Finally, here are a couple of articles I came across this week that I thought were useful and important.
- “The Truth About Sensitivity Readers and ‘Free Speech‘” by Sarah Hanna Gomez
- “What It’s Like to Be Mistaken for the Nanny” by Jacqueline Park
Call to Action
Read some books written by a range of diverse authors. (Rich in Color has a list that can help you get started.) Study the way they write their characters. How much time is devoted to describing physical characteristics? Which words are used and which words aren’t? What is it about their descriptions that make the characters feel real? How can you emulate that level of authenticity in your own work?
See you next month when we talk about gender!
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
- Writing (and Not Writing) Race and Ethnicity
- Writing Color