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Old 03-18-2010, 05:30 AM   #1
LordDelusions
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Describing skin tones and ethnicities...

So here's a question I'm sure has come up before:
Without sounding racist and presumptuous, how do you describe people's ethnicity/skin tones/race, etc.?

For example, in my wip, a few of the main characters are "Black"/African-descent, but the central main character doesnt assume(presume?) that they are African-descent. and i don't want to directly say "black" because i feel that is too common of a term. There's also a guy from Spain. any suggestion to make it seem a bit more literary?


is there a website that helps on this matter?

I know in Harry Potter, JKR described Lee Jordan as a boy with dreadlocks, and as we see in the movie, he's Black. I've seen "white"/caucasian guys with dreadlocks as well (there's this one kid at my college who looks like a skinny human version of Aslan from Narnia).
And to continue with HP as an example: Cho Chang is guessed to be Chinese/"Oriental" (not sure if this term is still used or not) based on her name. and Padma and Parvati Patel are common names for Indian girls. But majority/the rest of her characters are "white"/Caucasian.

So your thoughts?

Also, sorry if I offended anyone. People automatically guess Im from India/Pakistan/some Arab country, and Im not from any of those but not offended by their guesses.
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Old 03-18-2010, 05:51 AM   #2
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I really don't think it's that big a deal. If you wouldn't feel weird describing a white character as, say, "fair-skinned and freckled," then why would describing a black character as having "skin the color of dark chocolate" be any different? (Those aren't great examples, I'm just saying.) To avoid hammering in or making a huge deal of the fact that your characters aren't white, you might try describing their color along with other small details about them, like "She was a small black woman with enormous eyes," or something like that. I personally don't see a problem with using the word "black" - why is that too common of a term? Would you use the word "white" or is that also too common? Just curious.

Personally, I think that this kind of thing works best when the characters' races really aren't an issue at all. In Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, most of the main characters are black and I think maybe there's one or two mentions in the whole book of their dark skin. It's a non-issue, pretty much. The author isn't trying to make a point with the characters' skin color; it's just a good story about people who happen to be black.
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Old 03-18-2010, 05:59 AM   #3
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Why would you have offended anyone with what you wrote? I didn't see any racist remarks, epithets, or condescension.

Anyway, it seems to me that you suffer from the same racial guilt I see all around me every day. I think if you lose your fear of insulting people just because you said they're black you'll see your options bloom like a flower. I realize we live in a very PC era where from one day to the next a characterization can go from OK to racist, but if you start fearing what others will infer about you based on your writing (in fiction always) you'll always find dead ends ahead of you.

I want to be more specific, but I don't know how without having it in context. In one of my "paused" WIPs I have a 10 year-old boy ask someone if his foster sister is black because God is punishing her (he was raised in a racist home and was taught that was the case). For me that works because it shows several elements of his upbringing and mentality while also clarifying the girl is black.
You can skirt around the issue and be too vague, or you can try to be clever and end up actually insulting people because of it (I read an MS once as a favor to a friend of a friend where she "showed" a secondary character as being Mexican by saying "he stank like guacamole and re-fried beans in the morning.")

Also consider this: How important is it to clarify and make the distinction? If there's a real reason behind it go ahead, but if you're doing it to show your reader you're not racist it can backfire and seem like you are.
You can use dialect to your benefit also. This depends heavily on the characters origins, but the Spaniard might have a "sexy Latino lisp" for example. I'd avoid coloring his words with heavy phonetic spellings to show this, but it could be commented on by another character or by the narrator to show it.

Hope this helps.
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Old 03-18-2010, 06:20 AM   #4
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I use all different skin tones in my stories, and I never say "African-American", I just describe the color.

For one of my MCs in my first sci-fi novel, who is half-black, I describe his complexion as "a creamy shade of mocha".

The MC of a near-future sci-fi short story I'm currently working on is dark-skinned black, and his wife is pale Irish. I had no qualms about making that contrast clear in the very first scene, when they're lying next to each other in bed.

In my women's fic novel, the MC's family is Italian, which is pointed out, but when describing their appearance, I do just that. Describe what they look like. Sun-kissed complexions, coffee-colored eyes, etc.
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Old 03-18-2010, 06:26 AM   #5
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Whenever I write about ethnicity, I try to avoid things like saying "black." Saying "He was black" or something of the like, bothers me. Same with describing someone as "white."

So, I just describe the colour. If they're spanish or italian, I could say they have "olive skin tone" or if they're african I could say something like, "Dark skin that contrasted sharply with his white teeth."

I don't necessarily use words "Black, tan or white" I just describe the actual way the skin looks.
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Old 03-18-2010, 06:36 AM   #6
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I am not sure why race is important, and why can't you just say so-and-so is black or African-American? What's the big deal? Sometimes just the name itself if enough, such as Cho Chang, but that could be seen as ethnic stereotyping if you give your character stereotypical names.

Usually, less is more. I don't specifically call out the race or skin color unless it's important. Most often, it's understood already, or if not, it's not important. I have a character named Lt. Andrews and you don't have to care if he's white or black or Irish or Indian... because it really doesn't matter!
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Old 03-18-2010, 08:57 AM   #7
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There's nothing wrong with simply describing the color, as you would any other physical feature. My only advice would be to avoid comparisons to coffee and chocolate. They're not racist (I'm not offended by them, anyways), but they're overdone.
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Old 03-18-2010, 09:31 AM   #8
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I'm a fan of very basic descriptions. Dark brown skin will never be cliche, confusing or become next season's racial slur. Any other way of describing race runs those risks.

Racial Slur/Confusing: Oriental is considered offensive in America, but not everywhere in the world. Asian means an East Asian in America, but a South Asian in the UK. It's hard to find a term that means the same thing to everyone, isn't insulting to anyone and won't be insulting in twenty years time.

Calling someone exotic, or otherwise exoticising them in your description, can be offensive.

Cliched: Comparing skin to chocolate or coffee. Almond-shaped eyes.


This series of blog posts might interest you. It has various ways of describing race, with discussion on what people think works and doesn't:

http://nkjemisin.com/2009/04/ways-to...ters-of-color/
http://magicdistrict.wordpress.com/2...of-color-pt-2/
http://nkjemisin.com/2010/02/describ...color-3-oppoc/
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Old 03-18-2010, 01:59 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LordDelusions View Post
So here's a question I'm sure has come up before:
Without sounding racist and presumptuous, how do you describe people's ethnicity/skin tones/race, etc.?

For example, in my wip, a few of the main characters are "Black"/African-descent, but the central main character doesnt assume(presume?) that they are African-descent. and i don't want to directly say "black" because i feel that is too common of a term. There's also a guy from Spain. any suggestion to make it seem a bit more literary?
.

I have a black friend who gets REALLY OFFENDED when people describe her as 'coloured', she says crayons are coloured, she's black.

I know alot of people who think that way. Don't try to get caught up in fancy and non-offensive terms for ethnicity, because it just offends people more.
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Old 03-18-2010, 02:09 PM   #10
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I always bend over backward not to offend about race. I do not want it to steal the show unnecessarily. I think Rowling pulls it off nicely. She only describes racial characteristics implicitly. We are never told that "Patel" is a Pakistani girl. It's just obvious.

Anyway, I don't know of anywhere where "black" is considered derogatory. Just make sure your ethnic character isn't stereotypical or flat. That's when it can get offensive regardless of how pc your adjectives are.

Unless race is a subject matter, in which case I go for full on either racist or pc, depending on the beliefs of the person who's mind I'm inhabiting.
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Old 03-18-2010, 02:33 PM   #11
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, I just describe the color.
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Originally Posted by PoppysInARow View Post

So, I just describe the colour.
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There's nothing wrong with simply describing the color, as you would any other physical feature.
What they said.

And I just realised that the two 'white' characters in my WIP are the Other to everyone else's ethnicity. Everyone thinks they're a bit odd ( well they are, comparatively). I'd not realised that before.
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:09 PM   #12
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I have a character in my WIP that is Japanese in heritage. But there is a point where another character is talking about her and says, 'She's Korean, maybe, or Japanese. I mean, I've known her for eight years and I'm not sure. It seems a bit rude to ask her now.'
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:14 PM   #13
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Calling someone exotic, or otherwise exoticising them in your description, can be offensive.
Why?
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:20 PM   #14
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I don't think describing skin tones is racist--it should just be a natural part of the story and the setting to have those in there and treated like the other characters because they are all characters. However, I think our culture, in the quest of political correctness, has taught everyone that it's bad to notice if someone is racially different. That puts writers in a quandary because people being different is where all the ideas and textures in a story come from.

Try reading Tamora Pierce for examples. She's one of the writers who does it really well--but it's also because it truly is part of the story and the setting.
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:38 PM   #15
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However, I think our culture, in the quest of political correctness, has taught everyone that it's bad to notice if someone is racially different.
And this is often carried to a level of absurdity. People claim all the time they never see race. But this is only true if you're physically blind. Otherwise, it's a very ridiculous claim to make. Of course we see race. Whenever we meet someone, we immediately notice their race, just as we notice gender, height, weight, overall attractiveness. Humans are visual creatures. Let your characters describe what they see.
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:46 PM   #16
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Avoiding being termed a racist is a minefield, even for the careful and experienced writer. Not only is it difficult generally, but it varies from country to country. The US is totally paranoid about race, and historically, with good reason. The UK, much less so; itís not burdened by slavery to the same extent.

To make too much of it is offensive per se, but using terms like dark-coloured chocolate is a hanging job. Black is usually appropriate, when not dwelt on, as is white.

Of the Spanish speaking countries, only Spain talks with an Iberian lisp, the rest donít. Spain, Italy and France consider themselves European, and their skin shades donít matter.

Asians are Asians and Chinese are Chinese. Russians can be anything, itís a vast country.

There are a few times when skin tones matter, perhaps to accentuate a particular beauty in context to the story, otherwise itís best to stick with black or white, or best of all, donít mention it.
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:50 PM   #17
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When I've mentioned the skin tone of my characters, I've just included it as part of a larger description.

In my current WIP, I have a minor character who's Japanese, and I'd like to think her name gives that away, although with the number of anime fanfics that contain characters from every corner of the globe with Japanese names, perhaps I shouldn't make that assumption. ^_^;;
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Old 03-18-2010, 03:55 PM   #18
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Avoiding being termed a racist is a minefield, even for the careful and experienced writer. Not only is it difficult generally, but it varies from country to country. The US is totally paranoid about race, and historically, with good reason. The UK, much less so; it’s not burdened by slavery to the same extent.



To make too much of it is offensive per se, but using terms like dark-coloured chocolate is a hanging job. Black is usually appropriate, when not dwelt on, as is white.



Of the Spanish speaking countries, only Spain talks with an Iberian lisp, the rest don’t. Spain, Italy and France consider themselves European, and their skin shades don’t matter.



Asians are Asians and Chinese are Chinese. Russians can be anything, it’s a vast country.



There are a few times when skin tones matter, perhaps to accentuate a particular beauty in context to the story, otherwise it’s best to stick with black or white, or best of all, don’t mention it.

Oooh, that post ^^^ contains a few things that happen when talking about race that make me shake my head a little [].

I think describing how people look, and the wonderful accents or dialects we use, is nice flavor for a story. It's probably best not to categorize if you can help it, unless you know a ton about the people you are talking about.

Not only does it add flavor, but you won't have that Friends problem. I pretty much figured those kids were kinda racist, honestly. If you are writing a story about a big, cosmopolitan city, it's weird to only have white folks around! If it's a more introverted story, of course YMMV.
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Old 03-18-2010, 04:06 PM   #19
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I tend to struggle with physical descriptions even outside of race. Most of my work is in first-person, and it can be very tricky trying to convey what my MC looks like for the reader without making it sound convoluted. Even with secondary characters, to stop the narrative to describe what someone looks like often kills the momentum or appears too distracting.

I mentioned this over in the children's section, and a poster commented that she preferred to read books where characters aren't described, as this allows her to conjure her own images.
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Old 03-18-2010, 04:14 PM   #20
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I tend to struggle with physical descriptions even outside of race. Most of my work is in first-person, and it can be very tricky trying to convey what my MC looks like for the reader without making it sound convoluted. Even with secondary characters, to stop the narrative to describe what someone looks like often kills the momentum or appears too distracting.

I mentioned this over in the children's section, and a poster commented that she preferred to read books where characters aren't described, as this allows her to conjure her own images.
I agree, and your story may be more introverted. In my WIP, my MC meets/sees a ton of people, in Budapest primarily. That's where it would be weird if everyone were blonde and blue-eyed

She describes them more often because travel and the culture is big in mine, btw. If it were a love story, I'm sure the surrounding folks wouldn't be mentioned as much.

And of course her best friend could be non-white. She just happens to be an old Communist woman, so she's not
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Old 03-18-2010, 04:15 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by LuckyH View Post

There are a few times when skin tones matter, perhaps to accentuate a particular beauty in context to the story, otherwise itís best to stick with black or white, or best of all, donít mention it.
But black or white tells you almost nothing ( plus I would find that a very boring way to read a description. YMMV). It's just race then, not about the person. There's a world of difference between 'very pale with freckles and turns red just looking at the sun' white or 'olive tones' white or 'sallow' white or 'peaches and cream' white for 'white'. If you're ust going to say 'white' you might as well not bother.


People aren't just white or black or whatever. They are their own colour. I'm not advocating bunging in description for the sake of it, but if you're going to mention skin colour ( and you don't have to), then at least try and be a) interesting and b) individual to the person described oh and c) let it show you the character of the person doing the describing. Unless your narrator doesn't give a crap about what they're looking at / tends to state things baldly obviously
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Old 03-18-2010, 04:17 PM   #22
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I describe people as best I can without coming across as racist unless the character doing the description is a racist. If people are offended, good. Return the book, burn it, do what you want, I don't care. People who are easily offended won't get that far in my book.

Last edited by Wayne K; 03-18-2010 at 04:20 PM.
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Old 03-18-2010, 04:27 PM   #23
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Unless it's necessary for the story, or is funny, I don't describe anyone in any level of detail except the hero/heroine - but that's for romance, where it's kinda expected. Since all my books are in Louisiana, I deal mostly with Creole or Native American as far as ethnicity goes. I've found it's easier to remove all doubt and just say something like "he had the dark skin of the Creole's" etc.

The problem, of course, with any of it is that "traditionally" dark-skinned people may not be at all. My husband is mostly Italian and has the black hair and dark eyes, but his skin is whiter than mine and I'm German.

One day, writers won't have this problem - we'll all look alike.
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Old 03-18-2010, 05:38 PM   #24
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Originally Posted by IdiotsRUs View Post
But black or white tells you almost nothing ( plus I would find that a very boring way to read a description. YMMV). It's just race then, not about the person. There's a world of difference between 'very pale with freckles and turns red just looking at the sun' white or 'olive tones' white or 'sallow' white or 'peaches and cream' white for 'white'. If you're ust going to say 'white' you might as well not bother.


People aren't just white or black or whatever. They are their own colour. I'm not advocating bunging in description for the sake of it, but if you're going to mention skin colour ( and you don't have to), then at least try and be a) interesting and b) individual to the person described oh and c) let it show you the character of the person doing the describing. Unless your narrator doesn't give a crap about what they're looking at / tends to state things baldly obviously
I didnít explain it properly, sorry. Supposing you mention that a woman is black, and she is a main character, then you would describe her at an appropriate stage and in context. If sheís got soft skin you would say so and describe her eyes as dreamy, if thatís what you want to portray. She could have a wild temper and over-paint her lips on occasions, and sing to herself in the mirror.

But if you stereotype your description, perhaps by saying that she was black with a big arse, you could well offend people. Unless youíre describing a famous tennis player, of course, and even then youíre on thin ice.
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Old 03-18-2010, 05:45 PM   #25
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What if she is black with a big ass?
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