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In Defense of Foodstuff Skin Tones

I encountered a post decrying that anyone would dare to compare skin tones to foodstuffs in writing, stating that writers should instead just use the word "brown" to prevent offending someone who is damn tired of being called chocolate-skinned. While I am not out to beat that strawman, I believe that author do this for the same reason the skin color Crayolas do not only come with only a solitary brown crayon: it's not the most accurate descriptor. If we just wanted to call six billion plus people "brown," we'd write inaccurate and racist technical manuals for the government. Four of my serious girlfriends have had brown hair, but each had a completely different brown (spring mud puddle, cat at night, Labrador, Whitman's sampler). One had eyes like a scuffed turquoise, another like melted mint fudge, the next like an hour after dawn, the fourth like a forest being sucked into a vortex, and my wife has slate eyes. I could not stomach saying they had blue, hazel, and brown eyes when I have the opportunity to be precise.

People are most accustomed to food, since it is familiar and tends to have a positive connotation, so they would default to that unconsciously in describing people they regard likewise positively. A painter might call someone "mummy brown" or "burnt umber" because that vocabulary would be more familiar to them, however it might push the reader to have to look the colors up. Likewise, a writer or character from Mumbai, Perth, or Abuja might employ a different lexicon in descriptions, even though they would speak English, because their context is different.

You know what color milk chocolate is, right? What about a strong cup of tea? A character the color of the former has a different feel than one the color of the latter. Perhaps - and I know this is going to be taxing - there might be some additional characteristics of the foodstuff that the descriptor is meant to suggest. The milk chocolate woman, while you better understand her place on the color wheel, might also be sweet and smooth. The tea colored one may need to be left to cool a bit before her company can be enjoyed. (Or maybe someone salivates over a strong, bitter cup of coffee - thus the constant wordplay of "I like my men like I like my coffee..." - but cannot stand the cloying sweetness of a cup of cocoa.)

I have also described characters (even Caucasians!) by plants because that seemed like the closest analog and it is how the narrative character would think. (Specifically, a tan boy had teak skin, both in hue and hardness. What is not said, but implied, is that he behaves in a shiny but wooden fashion.) Is this supposed to imply a depersonalization or that the redundancy of food terms is overdone? If it is the former, sorry to say that writers tend to use inanimate objects to describe people and human characteristics to describe objects. If your English teacher neglected to teach you about anthropomorphization, send them my way. To the latter, you'll get no argument from me (except that calling everyone "brown" is unlikely to provide satisfying results), but that doesn't mean I will let it go without an attempt at explanation.

So, yes, absolutely describe white people using food analogies (I insist if someone is going to be clever enough to make up something like "her face shone like 2% milk on the verge of spoiling," because that tells me exactly what they looked like in a way "white" never would), as long as you are trying for accuracy and you mix it up a bit. "Milky white" is so common a descriptor that it is a cliché, as is "chocolaty." (Though, researching this, I came upon "whey-faced." I would personally avoid that for any character you actually liked, since I picture curdling.) If in your stories a woman from India is "brown," as is a man from Kenya and a boy from Argentina, you are a poor writer. Neither should your descriptors always be food related, unless your character is a cannibal, which would be an excellent subversion of the trope.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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