Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Writing the human color wheel

I saw this article the other day, “If White Characters Were Described Like People of Color,” and I don’t agree with it.  Like, at all.

I know, I know.  Take Buzzfeed with an ocean of salt, right?  But before everyone jumps on me all at once, let me get a few things out of the way. 

First, I get that it’s satire, okay?  I just don’t think it’s funny or even on point.  It doesn’t add anything to the greater on-going conversation about race in this country, and it doesn’t even give the appearance of being particularly well-read.  (Again: Buzzfeed.) 

Another thing I’d like to throw out there is that I am Latina, even though I “look” white.  My relatives and I represent a wide range of skin tones, from deep, dark brown to—well, my own Goth-like pallor. 

"That's our human color wheel. It goes from Seal to Seal's teeth." -Community

I bring this up because I grew up being hyper-aware of skin tone and what it means—not just to white people, but to people of color as well.  (Can we also just get out of the way right now that I hate the phrase “people of color”?  To me, it sounds like something a Southern lady would say in the pre-Civil Rights era: “Oh, that’s the colored man who mows my lawn.”  Shudder.) 

Of course, I was treated differently because of how I looked.  I have carried my experiences as a person of color/non-color into my writing.  Do I think there are racist slants in the language?  Absolutely.  Do I think this is one of them?  

No.  No, I don’t.

The very title of the article, “If White Characters Were Described Like People of Color”—if?  I’m sorry, but what’s this IF bullshit?  White people are frequently described as food.  Milk-white, creamy white, peaches-and-cream, olive.  Nabokov described Lolita’s tan as “apricot.”  Hair is described as “honey-colored,” “wheat-colored,” "chestnut," “chocolaty,” “ginger.”  My hair color, according to dye packages I see on beauty store shelves, is “dark mocha.”  

And you know what?  It’s just a color.  It’s just a tangible source of reference, a point of comparison on which we can all agree.  Some people call this kind of description in literature “lazy writing.”  I don’t think it’s lazy.  There’s a difference between a stock phrase and a cliché.  If a writer says someone has ice-blue eyes, we all have the same basic idea of what that means.  Or if someone is described as wearing a wine-colored dress—again, it’s not a slight to the dress or the wearer.  And sometimes it’s not even about originality.  It’s just to help the reader imagine that particular shade of red.  It’s an attempt at accuracy.  If a writer relies too much on stock phrases then, yes, that is bad writing.  But woven occasionally throughout a piece?  I think that’s just about unavoidable. 

Beautiful and/or pleasant characters are described in pleasant terms and seriously, what’s more pleasant than good food?  It makes the reader kindly disposed towards them and paints an evocative portrait.  There is a whole field of psychology related to color and our perception of it.  Our relationship with color is strongly bound to our relationship with foods and whether we perceive that food as palatable or not.  The first bite, as they say, is with the eyes.  And what do we want to do with pretty people, but to devour them with our eyes?  (And with our mouths, too.) 

Humans of all nationalities (and non-human creatures, if you happen to be a sci-fi/fantasy writer) are described in ways that convey skin tone.  It’s not meant to be racist or insulting.  Someone in the comment section on the Buzzfeed article said that they couldn’t wait for white people to start complaining, that we were going to be all butthurt for being called cauliflower and mozzarella.  I’m not butthurt, I’m just pointing out that “fishbelly white” is not a compliment and is frequently used to describe skin like mine.  I don’t think it’s racist; just unkind. 

My own grandmothers used to call me bolilla (white bread), and guera (literally, “empty egg,” a color associated with illness).  When I was in high school, a guy I worked with at an after-school job called me “Ghost.”  That shit is racist. 

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other ways in which white skin is portrayed in an unattractive, but not necessarily racist, light: pale, albino, pasty, sallow, pallid, chalky, papery, etc.  Stephen King describes Carrie as going a “cottage cheesy” color when frightened.  In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut describes the women of Dresden as having watery, pale complexions, a result of their poor, potato-based diet.  I once described a character as “vampirically white.”  Ruddy and swarthy are usually reserved for those of the Caucasian persuasion.  These are not flattering terms.  Ask any redhead how they feel about being referred to as a “carrot top.” 

Non-white people are fortunate to avoid, for the most part, unbecoming color fluctuations—in the Harry Potter books, Uncle Vernon, when angry, goes a shade of “puce.”  Turning red, blushing, flushing, sunburn, and going green are all unpleasant realities for pale folk.  Excessive tanning makes for Oompa Loompa and Tang orange, and I’ve read lots of descriptions of older white people who tanned too much in their youth becoming “leathery.”  Charming!

I saw another commenter on the article say that yes, there other words to describe white skin, like porcelain, ivory and alabaster, but those are all precious items, whereas people of color are relegated to “common” items.  Like . . . coffee?  That’s a fairly precious item.  I know lots of people who can’t live without coffee, and have a rather worshipful attitude towards it.  And anyway, if you want counterparts to precious materials, I submit: ebony, mahogany, copper and bronze.  As a fair-skinned person, I am not partial to the idea of being compared to ivory.  With elephants being poached to near-extinction for their tusks, I don’t want the color of my skin associated with greed and slaughter.

By contrast, another commenter said that describing people of color in terms of certain food items “exoticizes” them, makes them other.  So which is the problem—that they are described as common items, or uncommon items?  I think coffee and chocolate can no longer be considered exotic-- at least, not in the US.  And again, white people are constantly compared to regular, household items, like milk. 

At the end of the day, this article seems like noise, drowning out more important subjects.  I wish to reiterate that I don’t dispute racial bias in the language.  A man walking down the street in a story is automatically assumed to be white unless the writer specifies otherwise.  As a writer, I try to compensate for this by letting that character walk down the street, then describe him in a way that, hopefully, conveys his race.  Culturally, we have identified black with bad things.  To darken or blacken something is to besmirch it; black is synonymous with evil; white with purity.  By contrast, in Asian cultures, white is associated with death and mourning. I think it would be more constructive to address changing the language as a whole so that the default setting of human is not necessarily white (or male, for that matter).    

Language being the constantly evolving thing that it is, people are welcome to introduce comparisons to mashed potatoes and cauliflower if they wish, and it may well catch on.  In the meantime, in what way am I, as a writer, allowed to describe the various skin tones of non-white people that would be considered acceptable and neither exoticized or too common?  That may be my single biggest gripe with this article: it complains about the ways in which skin tone is portrayed in literature, but offers no acceptable alternatives. 

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