So yesterday, I talked about my thoughts on the need for us to develop more and better language for race in our fiction.
But, to be fair, “I literally don’t know any other way to describe dark skin that’s neutral or positive as opposed to problematic.” Personally, I think part of what is impeding this progress is often the very same people asking for it. Too often, we ask for it as if it’s a simple request. But it’s not.
A quick Google search or stroll around Tumblr will tell you that writing or creating characters of color is a damned near impossible task. There are so many rules and regulations, so many lines to be toed and landmines to avoid.
Look simply at how we describe race in literature. How we talk about the mere existence of characters of color in the medium of words. Or, more to the point, how we’re told we can’t.
The Objectification Argument
As a person of color who writes stories featuring characters of color, I’ve been criticized because I use descriptions like “chocolate” or “caramel” or “almond-shaped” and those terms are assumed to always be problematic. According to the argument, characters of color—and people of color, in general—are too often described using objects, which feels dehumanizing or fetishizing. Especially, considering that most of those objects are tradeable goods, like coffee or almonds or chocolate, which equate people of color to sellable goods. Made worse since many of those goods, like chocolate and coffee, “drove the slave trade. They still drive the slave trade. So comparing your Black character to these foodstuffs? You can see why it’s cause for offense.”
They see “referring to darker skin tones as specifically chocolate was about aggression and appropriation and has links to colonialism. Think about it, what is the best way to show dominance? By eating someone - like in the animal kingdom. It’s a disgusting practice.” It makes it seem creepily like we’re ingestible, literally looking good enough to eat. “See how often these comparisons are connected to some sensual desire? As if people of Color are food to consume?”
To be fair, I get the argument. I understand the logic and intent behind it; I do. And I respect individual taste and think, on an individual-level, it should be taken into account. People have the right to be offended by what they find offensive. If individuals, like the blog-posters I reference, are offended by those kinds of descriptions and don’t want to have those terms used in reference to themselves, that’s fair and they should be allowed that right. If one person doesn’t want a term to be applied to them, they can tell people that and make that known. And I honestly do believe that people ought to not use those terms for them. Like I said, I don't speak for every person of color. But neither does anyone else. On an individual-level, paying such close attention as to not offend is nice and very much appreciated, but I think the difference between being a nice, polite person and being overly PC is thinking that one person’s rule—whatever it is—is universal. Because making terms blanketly off-limits or automatically labeled offensive in general because of that can be in and of itself offensive.
After all, my—and a lot of people’s—question inevitably back, when I hear this argument, is then, if there are certain terms that we can’t or shouldn’t use, what terms should be used instead.
To which there really isn’t an answer.
Or rather there tends to be a lot of answers, but none of which seem like viable solutions. More like barely fleshed out brainstorming that does precisely what these proposed solutions rail against—or sometimes worse—just in different words.
How We See The Unseen
What I find most odd about this whole debate are the mixed messages we get. Finally—FINALLY—the world is starting to realize that there’s a gaping hole in the market for things like lingerie and makeup for women of color, all with helpful, useful names using understandable visual clues to describe how we look like honey, mocha, cocoa, toffee, and espresso to match our previously ignored tones. These are often products by people of color for people of color using terms that we’re told shouldn’t be used for people of color.
Except, as we've already talked about, how do you talk about a product—or a story, for that matter—with people of color in mind without being able to talk about color?
But, well, it’s just makeup, right? It’s not exactly an industry one equates with the fight for equality or identity or social justice, right? The names are just some marketing ploy to sell more product. It’s not as if they’re some powerful force for change or anything.
Except makeup and the beauty industry, like literature and media in general, affect how we see ourselves and how others see us. For better or worse, they have a huge influence over our concept of identity and self. “When you watch Michelle Phan or Zoella applying cosmetics on camera (…) you are watching someone become themselves (…) And, even though that process involves a lot of talk about product and color and shape, there’s also this other, largely unspoken, talk about the self—its elusiveness—and how this stuff might be able to help you track it down.”
Growing up a theatre and dance kid, I remember being younger and having to buy three or four different foundations and powders—often from different brands with drastically different hues to rather dramatically disastrous dermatological results—that only matched me after a mad and expensive, Frankenstein-esque mix of products meant for “dark,” “medium,” and “light” skin, none of which on their own looked much like me. After all, how diverse and precise can you really get when you’re limited to only three options?
Last night, I looked through my makeup case and noticed that my foundation and powder and bronzer all have names like “cappuccino” or “almond glow” or “caramel.” At some point between my childhood and now, a wide range of colors cropped up on the cosmetics shelves. Suddenly, they had shades made specifically for people with my skin tone, because someone in the industry realized that “dark,” “medium,” and “light” just couldn’t cover everyone. Marketing ploy or not, it makes sense and creates an “I see you” kind of identity. It shouldn’t be—it’s just makeup, after all—but that’s a big deal to women of color to have companies and brands remember that people like you exist and are relevant enough to cater to. That we’re significant enough for them to see.
It’s a concern most white girls never have to think about. Looking at some makeup sites now, white girls have always had products to match them with names like “nude” and “natural.” Most of the products have many, mixed-up iterations of each: “creamy natural,” “nude beige,” “natural nude.”
What the hell do any of those even mean?!
It may be problematic but at least when I read “caramel-colored skin” I know what that looks like. “Natural nude,” what color is that?
Except we know what color it’s supposed to be: skin. After all, with names like Sephora's “Flesh,” how could it mean anything but that? “When the image of the perfect woman is coded from childhood as Snow White, the fairest and most sunburned in all the land, the idea becomes that all the rest of us are just donning costumes to imitate true beauty.” Historically, “makeup maintained an association with purity. It was only the clean or pure wearer who, through the application of cosmetics, could obtain true beauty. Which was largely associated with the idea of ‘natural beauty,’ that you might imagine comes packaged with all sorts of troubling ideas about race. Some of which we’re still working through today, given the West’s fair-skin centric global domination of the beauty industry.” Those names—those labels and descriptions—seem to imply that skin has one true color: white. And everything else is just a variation, a deviation, from that. As if white skin is real skin and ours is…something else.
I don’t know, but I would think that, of the two types of description, this seems more offensive to people of color than any word or object anyone could ever use for our skin. At least, I know which, between the two, makes me feel more dehumanized.
Would object-based descriptions feels so objectifying and offensive on their own if they weren’t juxtaposed with this? After all, if white skin is described as flesh and everyone else’s skin is described as objects—food, minerals, plants, animals—yeah, it’s hard not to feel like the world sees you as less than human.
So where does that leave us?
We could let ourselves be seen, if only in the worst context. Daringly describe ourselves in all our “I see you” beauty and risk it being seen as cliché and offensive and trashy. I understand why that would make readers and publishers and, yes, writers uncomfortable. I understand that stories like these come with a context that can be easily misinterpreted and that must always be cautiously handled and explicitly explained with disclaimers. Race is inevitably encoded with centuries of history that make it so diversity can never just be enjoyed.
But, for those exact same reasons, I think saying you can’t or shouldn’t use those terms doesn’t solve the problem either. Or rather it solves it rather problematically. Again, I just don’t think its proponents have thought the theory all the way through. We need and deserve to be able to use understandable visual cues to describe ourselves. We need more language, not less, to allow us to be seen.
Because, clichéd and trashy as those descriptions seem, I’d still rather they exist than not. Because they serve the same function that descriptions of white characters do. To give the reader a detailed picture of what those characters look like. In the same way, in my stories, I tell the reader that Peter’s eyes are hazel or Max’s hair is red, I tell them that Kat’s eyes are lotus-shaped and Hayato’s skin is golden. Because they are.
And, as for it being clichéd or overused, I’m sure if we looked in the vast history of English literature, hazel eyes and red hair—as well as emerald or sky blue eyes or ivory or cream-colored skin—I would guess, appear far more often than lotus-shaped eyes and golden skin. Only, we never notice because hazel eyes, unlike lotus-shaped ones, are normalized in western culture. We take them for granted as a given. As normal. It’s just a color to us. In the same way, Kat’s eyes should just be a shape.
I should be able to say that my character has “almond-shaped eyes” with the same ease and acceptance as I would say that my character has “blue eyes.” I should be able to say that my love interest finds the color of my black character’s skin attractive with the same nonchalance that I would if he admired my redheaded character for her hair. They’re just adjectives, meant to give a reader a more detailed image of what my character looks like. If one is unacceptable then the other should be as well because neither one, in and of themselves, says anything politically charged. Neither one is more normal or more deviant than the other. On their own, without value judgement or cultural baggage attached, they’re just shapes and color.
But I suppose that's the problem, isn't it? How do we detach all that baggage? We can't exactly ignore the centuries of fetishization and discrimination against people—particularly women—of color. We've been devaluing beauty of color for so long; that's how we got here in the first place! Are there people who dismiss and denigrate people based on their features or skin color? Are there people who don’t so much appreciate as fetishize the color of skin? Absolutely. Believe me, as a woman of color, I know—I know—they exist. But their dismissal or fetishization shouldn’t be used to erase others’ appreciation. There is a difference between describing or even appreciating the realities of how a person looks and fetishizing or dehumanizing a person based on their looks. And we owe it to each other to make and acknowledge the difference. The two exist. Simultaneously in the same world. To the same people. I promise you, I have experienced both in my lifetime. Why do we too often seem content to rail against one while ignoring the other?
By doing so, it makes it seem like our love must always come packaged with bad intentions or ulterior motives. That the only way to visually appreciate us is to do so unhealthily. That, by seeing us as beautiful and attractive and desirable, that is an admission of guilt. A stain of prejudice. The sign of a racist. We “can be, and often are, hyper-sexualized — and in seeing (us) as overly sexual, and only sexual, (we participate) in that stereotype. But while (we) can be sexual things, (minority women) are not allowed to be glamorous or lovable.” We can only be lusted over, dissected into stereotypical parts like big asses, sassily swaying hips, or submissively bowed heads, but never truly loved.
Is that the world we want to live in? Is that a world, if given the choice and opportunity as writers, we want to create?
Often, having to address race in such an overt way, after dealing with the weight and heft of it, it makes touching the topic feel tainted. It makes every mention of the way we look feel more meaningful now. Like the specifics of us are suddenly too significant. It makes our beauty no longer feel very beautiful. How could it be, if it has to be justified and rationalized—if it is only allowed to exist—in very specific and limited contexts? Because treating that kind of love as if it’s not something that needs justification seems to always demand some kind of defense from someone.
And, after talking to a partner once, I suppose the wider world is more like that than I’d like to believe. Because, while he’d often tell me that he thought me beautiful, he did confess to me that he never felt like he could admit that attraction to anyone else. Not without it being scoldingly misinterpreted as a fetish or objectification. I hadn’t realized that my race actually did made my beauty unspeakable in polite company. That it was something that needed very specific contextual spaces to be acknowledged, to exist. That only in private moments, away from the prying gaze and judgment of the rest of the world, did it feel appropriate. Otherwise, it was best, was safer, left unsaid. I didn't know that. I didn't know I was only allowed to be beautiful sometimes. In some ways. I’d always thought that so long as he loved me for who I was as well as what I looked like—the way most people do—the world would be at least forgiving if not understanding. I thought a love like that was what defined it as more than a fetish.
I want to believe that. And defiantly choose to.
I like to tell stories in which, like in the world I live in, people of color exist. If I’m going to create worlds, I want worlds where, like in the world I live in, diversity in all its complexity is something real. I want people who look like me, who look like my friends, to all be seen and be given voices. I want to show diverse people living together. Loving together. The way they do in the world I live in. The world we all live in, whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. The existence and normalization of stories like that are important to me, as someone who grew up not really having a whole lot of that.
And that is my problem with these arguments and theories. They focus so much on how not to describe us, how not to portray us, how not to look at us, and precious little on how we’re supposed to exist at all.
The Plainspeak Argument
Never compare us to objects; it’s objectifying.
Then what do we use?
The Plainspeak Argument suggests using “words that actually ‘mean’ their color”, like gold or ochre or fawn, instead of “these same ole descriptions that go out of their way to say something other than brown.”
Except color and shape are visual mediums built on comparison. “Communication theory suggests not knowing the word for a thing makes that thing invisible to the larger culture. It’s called linguistic relativity. If you can’t describe it; it doesn’t exist.” We can only know what green a green is by comparing it to something else. How do we know if a green is green like a pine tree or green like a celery stalk unless we're told?
Even with those helpful colors that mean their color, their meanings only mean something because they refer to the objects that share their name. The color gold exists because it is the color of the object gold. The object always and already preceded the abstract concept of the color.
The same applies for shapes. We can only know what a box looks like if we already have a concept of what shape a box is. In the same way, it’s often helpful to describe the shape of eyes using already known shapes, like almonds and lotuses, because we understand what those shapes are. If an object is the only the shape or color of itself, how can you, in a medium that paints and sculpts solely in words, describe that shape or color to a person who cannot see it? If we have skin that is the exact and unique color of our skin and features that put into mind the thought of our features, I suppose that is incredibly and obviously accurate but, in a world made of words without an outside visual reference to linguistically relate to, it makes us really inaccessible. In print form, it leaves us undefined, unsettled and strange. It will have solved the issue of us being compared to almonds and lattes by making us oddly sound like an unknowable something lurking in some Lovecraftian story.
Okay, so, say, we stick to modified but still more nondescript terms, like brown and beige. Currently, yes, many readers still read terms like “dark beige” skin as white skin with a tan but, if we continue to use it to mean skin of color, it’ll eventually become a non-offensive, plainspeak, ethnic signifier. We just need to give it and our readers time to acclimate and adjust.
Never mind that, in our nondescript, non-offensive efforts to avoid clichés, we would have just created a new, rather othering cliché that doesn’t so much describe us as people of color—doesn’t describe or even attempt to capture the beauty and individuality of us—but rather exist solely to distinguish and differentiate us as not white.
Usually, I’m a fan of plainspeak. But beauty feels less beautiful when confined to plainspeak. While certainly useful, it’s also thoroughly non-emotive. As one of my friends remarked, “dark beige; that’s the color of my living room, not a person.” It simplistically and non-specifically tells us something fairly vague but doesn’t show us anything. It’s flat and lifeless. And, if that was the aim, why not use very useful, very exacting Pantone codes? Then your character can be the precise shade of “Pantone 45-C” or the exact color of “Pantone 75-6 C”. Because who wouldn’t want to be described in such precise and breathtaking prose? Even the creator of the Humanae project that I’m referencing understands that kind of description, while visually stunning, is lyrically…unhelpful. Listen to her talk about race in her TedTalk in terms of “dark chocolate tone” and “porcelain skin” and “vanilla and strawberry yoghurt like tone.”
We need more and better ways to be seen. We need to be visible. Not just in opposition to the accepted norm—not just as “not white”—but as uniquely and independently ourselves. We cannot afford to limit our language and expression just because it might feel problematic to some people. That feels more like a step backward than anything else. That claim, that some people’s offense justifies making their comfort level the norm, hurts us by allowing our continued erasure, while we wait for some perfectly unproblematic solution that very well may never come.
The Natural Argument
So, okay, then maybe the problem isn’t that we use objects to describe people of color, but rather the types of objects typically used to do so. I mean, sure, all right, specificity and context make a difference. So just not food or tradable goods then, because after all people of color aren’t sellable and consumable goods and Lord knows we have a horrific history of too often being seen as such.
Okay, that’s fair.
But what brown items are we left with? The bark of trees. Except lumber is a tradable good. Stones and gems? Definitely, tradable goods. Mud? Clay? Still tradable goods and good thing they are, because I really don’t want people to look at my skin and think of the color of mud. Well, many social justice activists seem to be okay with “Natural Plant-life” or “Spices”. Which seems strange since, I’m sure the botanical and culinary industries will be surprised to know they don’t deal in tradable goods and I think several stores owe me refunds because I’m pretty sure I’ve paid money to obtain these items.
Not to mention, there are tons of natural plants, like fruits and vegetables, and spices, like cinnamon and clove, that I’ve ingested as or in food, so why are food items sometimes non-offensively acceptable and other times not?
Maybe it’s because I write smutty, sex-centric erotica, but I don’t find the food analogies all that offensive. Not on their own. I mean, sure, if you overthink it or authorially overwork it, there is certainly a “the better to eat you with, my dear” creepiness to it but, as a writer who also loves speculative fiction, I know that, if you think too hard about anything, you can find a creeptastic spin on it.
And, in a genre like erotica, that depends on sensuality—on the playful embrace of your senses, sight, sound, smell, texture, and taste—it seems strange, arbitrary, and off-putting to shy away from these descriptions just because there exists people out there who read, willingly or not, cannibalism into sex.
And, again, I get it. There is something inherently visceral and carnal about the way writers—particularly erotica and romance writers—describe characters. Because there’s often something inherently visceral and carnal about the way we as people experience attraction and love. We obsess and wax poetic about the size, shape, color, texture, and taste of thighs, breasts, hips, shoulders, asses, vulvas, and cocks. We touch and taste and savor and swallow. We eat out and go down. We tongue and suck and lick and bite. Call me crazy—or racist or offensive—but food analogies exist and make sense because of this. If you want to eliminate writers using these types of descriptions, you’re going to need to eliminate this “feast of love” part of human sexuality.
But, okay, so if food and inanimate, tradable goods are creepy and dehumanizing, what about animals? Fur and hide and scales comes in a wide variety of browns. But then couldn't the argument be made that to compare us to animals makes us seem animalistic? And, even if “fawn” has somehow become an acceptable description of skin, this isn’t really helping people see us as more human now, is it?
The Heritage Argument
Well, perhaps we can only describe ourselves in comparison to each other, to other humans who look like us. So, while white people can have eyes as blue and deep as the ocean or skin as rich and smooth as silk, we can only have the skin of Barack Obama or the eyes of Lucy Liu. And, if you don’t have an easily recognizable celebrity who looks like you, perhaps the world isn’t yet ready to see you.
Or perhaps we are just ethnicities and nothing else. All Asians are just Asian. All black people are black. All Hispanic people, Hispanic. It certainly makes describing people easier, since, within our designated race, it would be assumed that we then all look the same. That we are some big collective without individuality or distinction. A practice that has not been historically the best.
Besides, what exactly defines each designation? What does, say, “Asian” look like anyway? Who decides that? Ming-Na Wen, Ariana Miyamoto, and I are all Asian, but none of us look the same.
Perhaps more specificity is needed then. Maybe we could say characters of color have “Korean skin” or “South African hair?” Would “ethnically typical shaped eyes for a South Pacific Asian” and “skin of a shade that is not of European descent” feel more accurate and socially acceptable? It ought to feel less offensive, right? I mean, you’re simply stating the ethnic heritage of where those features came from. Except that just feels so othering. Especially since you would never hear someone say “French-Canadian eyes” or “Scottish skin.“
Besides, as an Asian-American, a daughter of an immigrant, and a citizen who has rarely left the states, I would feel uncomfortable and it just frankly feels odd and illogical to be defined by a region of the world that I’ve never been to or seen or experienced outside of a magazine or textbook.
So how would you describe a person who looked like me? What words am I allowed to exist within? Would I have the skin of a people I have little connection to beyond my genetics? Or the eyes of an island I did a cursory report on in fifth grade? And, having said that, what color does that make my skin and what shape are my eyes, when through a description like that, even I have a very detached, National Geographic-inspired relationship with my own body now? And is it any wonder that we don’t see more characters of color when we have to ask these questions?
An Impossible Balancing Act
And that’s just with the way we look. We also can’t be too ethnically stereotypical personality-wise, but don’t make us too white either. Also be careful where you place us; don’t relegate us to colored-only places and plots, but don’t make us the token piece of color in places and situations that are stereotypically white. Always acknowledge that racism exists—go in-depth on socially conscious subjects like objectification, racial profiling, and cultural appropriation—but don’t make all our stories afternoon-special-esque stories about race.
Where and how are we supposed to exist in that then? And should we even exist in a medium that clearly has a clearer picture of a world without us? Because if we can only be defined in the negative, by what we’re not allowed to be and only what we are in highly selective, not always true, impossibly Goldilockian not-too-hot-not-too-cold kinds of ways, our negation seems to make more sense than our inclusion. And perfectly explains why we are so very rarely seen, because why would anyone bother to include us when there seems no right way to do so?
Which, since most of the people touting this philosophy are trying to get more diversity in literature, defeats the purpose of proper and respectful representation. Because I—and many other authors—hear these objections, that as I said often feel logical and reasonable if a bit murkier on practicalities, and feel like it’s so much easier to just write white people then. Because in a world full of white people no one ever has to talk about race ever. It’s really the only way to solve the problem they present.
It’s just also a solution I don’t want. But, in a medium and a world that too often doesn’t know what to do with us, is it any wonder why it feels easier and more right to just do away with us?
So What Do We Do?
I don’t know.
That's why this is titled "Searching for Solutions" and not just "Solutions."
But I think, whatever we do, the first step is going to be letting go of the idea of some perfect answer. Some unthought of invention of language that will solve this issue.
I think we need to admit to ourselves that it’s not going to be that easy.
We will offend someone.
We will mess up.
But we need to try.
We need to do something.
If it were up to me, I'd want to normalize the description of skin and features. For people of color and for white people as well. In the same way that white people are often described as being “milky white” or “creamy” or having “emerald eyes” or a million other descriptions, that never get questioned because we hear them so often, we need to de-stigmatize descriptions of people of color. Because, as long as these characters are “presented as different, unusual, weird, and deviant, there are going to be (people) who single that deviance out”, who see us as different and other in ways more problematic than words.
Right now, we don’t hear descriptions of people of color often, since we appear so infrequently in print stories, so when we are featured, they sound weird. It feels odd and off-putting to hear these things because, normally, we never do. Personally, I think most of the time it’s an issue of frequency, not fetish. I wonder if, the more we hear descriptions of ourselves, the more we use it, the more context over it we control, the more normal it will become.
If anything, I think we should get more creative and precise with how we describe everyone, white people too. It may sound weird to compare white skin to the color of pancakes and strawberry yoghurt, but again is it because it’s actually weird or just that we’re not used to hearing it? And, if that is more accurate than “ivory” or “creamy,” why shouldn’t we embrace that? Especially, since, when we fail to be more specific about white people, we perpetuate the idea of white skin as the default color of flesh.
Of all the arguments against terms like “chocolate eyes” or “coffee-colored skin,” the fact that that trend “tends to strike me as corny and tired just from a writer’s craft pov” is the one I find most compelling. I’m almost always more of a fan of and than or so, sure, I’m all for having more, rather than less, ways to describe ourselves. Instead of having characters with “blond hair,” maybe characters have rich strands the color of baked nadalin. Maybe characters have skin the shade of saison ale. Or eyes the tones of shifting silt.
Creativity is born of bravery, not fear. Of looking at our world, closely and intensely, not shying away from the uncomfortable bits. Personally, I firmly believe that, if we encourage people to pay closer attention to how we describe our characters, the context we portray them in, the spaces and roles and depths we give them, rather than just policing—arbitrarily yes-ing and no-ing—the usage of certain words, we might not only see more characters of color in our fiction, but better characters of color.
As women, we already have such troubling relationships with our bodies and I think that’s even more complicated for women of color and other minority women, because we know in a way I don’t think many white girls can that we will never—no matter what we do—be able to fit what we’ve been taught is acceptable or beautiful. And, to have opportunities to see ourselves as beautiful—to see other people see us as beautiful, to see the many, many, many ways we can be beautiful—is powerful. And something that I wish I’d had when I was younger.
It’s a legacy I want to be a part of passing on. I want to bring inclusion and diversity and body positivity into erotica. Into our fictional landscape as a whole. I want to use every word at my disposal to describe that beauty, to explore all that it is and all that it can be. For women and for men. For people of color and for white people. For those of us that work hard to fit society’s standards of beauty and those of us who defiantly flip those standards off.
As writers, we paint worlds with words. We use those words to breathe life into mere letters. There is magic in that. And, like any spellcaster worth their salt, we should be both careful and brave with our words.
I want to give everyone, whatever body they embody, the opportunity to feel beautiful. As they are. As they want to be.
Because, even if it’s not possible, don’t you want it to be? Isn’t that an idea, whatever stumbles or missteps in front of us, that’s worth exploring?