Writing with Color has received several asks on this topic.
Everything from “how do I describe my character’s skin tone without being offensive?” and “what’s the problem with comparing my character to chocolate and coffee?”
I’m hoping to address all these and likewise questions in this guide on describing POCs’ skin color, from light, dark and all that’s in between.
The Food Thing: So what’s the big deal?
So exactly what is the problem with comparing a POC’s skin tone to cocoa, coffee, caramel, brown sugar and other sweets and goods? Well, there’s several potential problems you come across when you pull out the old Hershey’s bar comparison for your dark-skinned character, even if offense is not your intention.
In an attempt of seduction, a white guy once told me that my skin was like “the bite into a Reese’s.”
Needless to say, I was not seduced.
It can get extremely uncomfortable, being or witnessing Black people and other POC being compared to food, even as a “compliment.”
“I love me some chocolate men.”
“Your skin’s like a mocha latte.”
“I wanna piece of that chocolate.”
See how often these comparisons are connected to some sensual desire? As if people of Color are food to consume?
This frequent comparison to cocoa and such just in time to highlight some kinky craving is not just grounds of a fetish, it’s dehumanizing.
Honestly, this quote from notanotherrph says it best.
[Text reads: NEVER use the words ‘chocolate’ or ‘coffee’ or any other food related word to describe someone’s skin color, especially someone of color. I wrote a whole paper about how 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, so please watch yourself while writing biographies and replying to people, or even in your short stories/novels.]
The next issue? It’s Cliché.
I’ve read one too many books in which authors compare dark skin to chocolate, brown sugar, honey, caramel…And these are very specific word choices that, in terms of describing skin tone, have become tired and cliché. And we writers don’t like cliché, eh?
And though I’ve read it numerous times, it doesn’t make me cringe any less at the author’s blatant lack of originality in this regard. Now no one’s saying go wild, but to rely on these same ole descriptions that go out of their way to say something other than brown…we can do better.
One Word: Slavery.
Get this. Cocoa. Coffee. They 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.
It’s especially harmful to compare those of the African Diaspora to chocolate and coffee, but for the reasons above, I think all People of Color deserve more than these comparisons, again and again.
But I call my White characters milky, peachy…
It’s your prerogative to compare your white characters to dairy products and such, but remember: White people are not People of Color.
I have my doubts that White people experience any fetishizing, dehumanizing flashbacks with such comparisons. Still I have heard from those who aren’t so keen on these sorts of comparisons either, so keep that in mind.
Additionally; you sure you like being compared to food like us POC?
But POC call each other…
Folks can’t do what POC do amongst each other, particularly what’s done within their race. I can call myself a delicious brown sugar honeycomb (okay I wouldn’t) and that’s my prerogative as a Black woman.
The whole “he wants that chocolate” line has even been jokingly passed between my Black friends and I as well. But obviously conversational jokes are not the same as a writer describing their character as such. And again, within circles…
I still wanna compare my character to food, though. I have this really good comparison that’s not chocolate and—
Again, that’s your prerogative. Avoiding food comparisons, especially chocolate & coffee to Black people and other food when describing POC is simply my advice, and I know a lot of People of Color who agree.
But i’m not gonna hover over your desk as you write, swatting your hands as that peanut butter comparison creeps out from your fingers. Ask yourself; though: is it worth it?
If People of Color have told you they don’t like being described a certain way, that it’s offensive, cliché, fetishizing…is it really that easy to brush off their words due to having just the perfect combination of parts cream and sugar to describe their skin when they, quite frankly, do not find it appropriate?
Your food-poc comparison isn’t cocoa or coffee, though. But it’s just good, so precise, you just have to use it. While I’m still narrowing my eyes a little, if something like this just has to be uttered, it’s best coming out of a character’s mouth vs. the narrator.
And if it’s spoken aloud, a bonus if they’re called out on it or an appropriate negative reaction ensues. Because more than likely, it still ain’t that good.
As for the exceptions.
Olive-toned skin is a relatively “technical” and accepted term for skin tone. Though note it doesn’t = POC so don’t rely on the term heavily or solely as a means to indicate your character is of color.
Depending on how it’s written, I personally don’t have a problem with certain edible natural nuts and plants in comparison to skin tone, such as almond, wheat, soybean…though it’s truly a matter of personal taste (pun unintended).
I’ve noticed that some People of Color are alright with herbs and spices descriptions of their skin tone, such as nutmeg, cumin, and cinnamon.
While this might be a matter of preference vs. absolute “no” I fear such usage could get potentially trope-y and fetishizing, especially if you compare the skin of a POC to food whose culture is known for using such herbs and spices.
Note I am simply highlighting that some People of Color who shun food descriptions don’t mind spice comparisons. I personally do not favor or recommend the use of spices to describe skin and view the same as describing one with food; it has a fetishistic angle.
Use caution and gather more than one opinion on whether or not it is offensive. This goes for any physical descriptions of POC you decide to use.
Words to describe skin tone.
Now that we’ve cleared that plate (i’m full of puns today), allow me to slide into the many ways in which to describe skin tone, from black and beige to brown, no reese’s cups included.
This can be found in PART II of this guide.