Open Discussion: Vanilla Questions

Hello, reader friends! It’s me again, timidly edging out of my comfort zone to ask an (innocent and hopefully not offensive) question to spark open and honest discussion.

As mentioned in the previous Vanilla Confessions, my home county is not blessed with diversity (96.6% “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino” according to Census.gov).

The only descriptions needed on a regular basis around these parts, besides hair and eye colors, are various degrees of “white” and “farmer’s tan.”

Share which comparisons or adjectives you find appealing,
which ones make you cringe, and why.

What kinds of descriptors are preferable in diverse fiction?
Is it taboo to use food to describe skin color?
Are there alternative ways to identify ethnicity without physical descriptions?

Post by Beth Erin
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7 thoughts on “Open Discussion: Vanilla Questions

  1. Great question. I don’t claim to have the answer, but what I’ve done is use a character’s thoughts and/or dialogue to describe him/herself or another character in terms that would have been period-accurate in the historical context the story takes place in. I think that’s fair, and when the observations come from a character rather than an omniscient narrator, this lets the writer off the hook, at least somewhat. Obviously, I would avoid overtly vulgar or offensive ones.
    We live in pretty intolerant times when it comes to such issues, though. Almost any word can be perceived as a “micro-aggression” by someone inclined to view the world strictly through the lens of race, ethnicity, and gender identity. The cure is to be circumspect, ask the kind of questions you are asking in this thread, but also be courageous. The best cure for such criticisms is to write characters with incredible depth and substance. If you do that, perhaps few will care what particular word or phrase you used to initially describe his/her ethnicity.

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  2. 🙂 I was recently in an author discussion about describing skin color. Not to rehash the whole convo, but, yeah, although plenty of authors do (or have done) it, and it doesn’t matter to everyone, I do believe it’s becoming increasingly frowned upon to use food references to describe the skin of people of color in books, particularly if the author is white.

    One person in the conversation mentioned how they’ve always been called “milky” and whatnot and have never been bothered by it as a white person, and I pointed out that while it may technically be the same thing, it doesn’t necessarily make it the same thing. For instance, if a character were to say that his boss has been “working him like a slave” lately, and both the characters happen to be white, that’s one thing. But if a black character were to say that his white boss has been “working him like a slave” lately, it carries a different connotation, even though the phrase is technically the same. (Not to say that black people were/are the only kinds of slaves in the world, which is sooo not the case, but considering the history of formerly legal U.S. slavery, I’m sure you see my point.)

    We discussed how part of the “food and skin” issue has to do with how people of color have been too long viewed as commodities, as “things” to be used or consumed at the discretion of others, even in arts and entertainment. And, practically, I think writers often use references like “chocolate” or “mocha” for darker skin tones because that’s likely what they’ve heard or seen done before, so they just use that first (food) word that pops into their heads. But as coming up with ways to say things is what writers *do,* I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a writer reaching a little further to come up with another way to describe a character’s brown skin.

    Whatever the descriptions may be, though, I think it’s good for an author not to only make skin references or to go into wordy physical details when a character isn’t white. That can essentially make white people the “default,” needing no explanation, while brown people are “the other kind,” so the reader will need extra help to picture what a brown person looks like. 😀

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a “diverse fiction” thing, but as for “alternative ways to identify ethnicity,” I’ve often seen authors simply state that a character is Native American or Hispanic or something and leave it at that. When the characters’ physical looks aren’t a big deal to the story in general, just giving the reader a little indication that there’s more than one race/ethnicity among the characters is enough.

    As an author myself, sometimes I describe characters’ skin colors or physical looks, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ll mention a character’s nationality or country of origin, sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll mention one character’s dreadlocks, or another character’s blue eyes, and leave readers to gather what races the characters are. One of my favorite male characters has skin that looks “like it never [tans]” and a freckly face and a red Afro. I don’t go into his ethnicity or what he may be mixed with because, for that particular tale, it doesn’t really matter. For me, how I do (or don’t) physically describe characters just depends on the story. Still, piggybacking on Bartholomew’s comment, I think a character’s depth and substance adds far more to the depth and substance of a story than what that character physically looks like.

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  3. i used the following in my new release, “…Hannah’s gown, also of lace, was a mauve color that set off her dark complexion like petit fours with coffee.” it’s 1912 and the character is a black wife of a black businessman who is quite successful. they are, of course, both former slaves (given the era and setting) and I wanted to show them as having risen above their past, even going against the social norm of their day. they are both gregarious and gracious people who hold no grudges of their past. I was actually making a comparison between her and another character, a white woman, who is stodgy and not so bubbly. in fact, the other woman didn’t even speak in this snippet.
    honestly, i was comparing the gowns the two women were wearing and used the fact that Hannah has an extremely dark skin tone.
    i think perhaps, it goes more to the tone in which the author portrays the character and the description. no one likes burnt toast for instance, so if i said someone’s skin or hair was that of burnt toast, that might be construed in a negative light. I happen to like coffee and drink mine black, so any mention of coffee, in my writing at least, is a positive reference. besides, Hannah Wisely, is a very likable woman, intelligent and gracious. i hope i have portrayed her in her best light.

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  4. I personally don’t have a problem with using food to describe race or other physical attributes. I like food and it’s usually a go to for me. I do try and not use it so much so that I won’t annoy the reader. I actually did a class at a writing conference about it and based my class of the answers readers sent me about what bothered them. Caucasian readers don’t like “creamy” “lily white” and such. African American readers don’t like darkness being emphasized especially if it’s being considered a bad thing or belittling their beauty. I think the best thing to do is pray before writing (or speaking if having an open discussion 😉 ) and then be willing to learn.

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  5. I personally have a peaches and cream complexion and haven’t been offended by any discriptions of pale blonds I’ve read. As far as food discriptions, I think it’s the most authentic if the person doing the describing uses descriptions they’re familiar with. For instance, if they’re a chef then food descriptions are authentic. If they are an outdoorsman than a description found in nature would be more in their vocabulary. I think you get my gist.

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  6. One thing I’ve heard recently is if you are writing about people from an ethnicity different than yours is to get a few “sensitivity readers” before publishing (i.e. a beta reader from that different ethnicity to check out if anything could be unintentionally offensive).

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