Thursday, August 13, 2015

"How shall I describe your skin color?"

A colleague in children's literature asked (on Facebook) how people of color, or people who write about people of color, would like the skin tone of characters of color to be described. Specifically she gave this example: a character who is Latina and has "caramel skin." Because there are objections to using food to describe skin color, she asked people of color and writers who create characters of color to weigh in: what would they prefer to "caramel skin"?

The question itself assumes that a character who is Latino/a will have skin coloring that means they won't visibly look white, or, that they won't be mistaken for white by other characters in the story. The question embodies the fact that the character's identity matters to the story.

Growing up in the southwest amongst people who might be called Latina or Hispanic or Spanish or Mexican or Mexican American, I know that there's a wide range of skin color amongst them, but, because northern New Mexico is an area in which people deeply identify with their specific heritage, I also know that the color of their skin is not what makes them feel Latino/a, or Hispanic, or Spanish, or Mexican, or Mexican American, or.... Pueblo Indian. Certainly, we've all experienced prejudice or acceptance based on our appearance, but I don't think skin color is what any of us would say as one of the first things we say about ourselves.

I think my colleague's larger point is that characters are more than the color of their skin, and I think she's pushing people to dig more deeply so that a character's culture is the defining feature, or, a feature that shapes how they move about in the story. We all know, too, that physical description is somewhat of a default when writers introduce a character. Writers want us to visualize that character's physical presence, but the descriptors used often take the whole story off the rails.

Because this colleague and I have talked before about Native people and our status as members/citizens of a specific tribal nation rather than people of color, I assume she was thinking specifically about people who aren't Native but are "of color."

But, because so many people include Native peoples in the "people of color" framework, I decided to write this post in response to her question.

First--read my post, "We Are Not People of Color" to understand why the phrase doesn't work well when talking about Native peoples. Some of us do have "color" that makes us look, in appearance, like societal expectations of what a Native person looks like (dark hair, dark skin), but some of us don't. This video from the Cherokee Nation makes the point very well:

See the range in appearance that I'm talking about? It makes the case that assumptions about skin color and a Native person's identity are likely to get a writer in hot water. I cringe opening a new book. Invariably, the descriptions of Native characters reflect those assumptions.

I love when Native writers, like Cynthia Leitich Smith, speak back to those expectations in their stories! Here's the opening of her story in Moccasin Thunder, edited by Lori Marie Carlson. Published in 2005 by HarperTeen, Smith's story starts on page 33:

I love that story--and others in Moccasin Thunder, too.

I appreciate my colleague's question about skin color, but I also gotta say it was (for me) a bit uncomfortable. In essence, she was asking "How shall I describe your skin color?" I imagined sitting with someone who wondered what I would like them to say about my skin color. Would they ask the question if we were face to face? As I imagined that conversation, I looked down at my hands and wondered what I'd say. I definitely felt unsettled, imagining the conversation, even though the question is meant to help people avoid pitfalls. I'm usually more than happy to help people with questions, but this one... this morning... it just feels icky. I might be back to this post to say more about that icky feeling later, if I figure it out! For certain, I'd want to be described as a tribal member at Nambe. Indeed, I'm often asked how I should be described for a brochure or poster announcing a lecture I'm giving. I say that I'm tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. That description means a lot. It opens doors to conversations that are rooted historically in the land, and in the political landscape of U.S. government/tribal nations. My skin color doesn't open that door.

An aside about nationhood: Did you notice the people in the video say "I am Cherokee" rather than "I am part Cherokee"? That is important. It speaks to their nationhood. I don't know anyone who says "I am part American." Do you? Or "Part of me is a citizen of the U.S."


Anonymous said...

Why can't a writer use their writing skills and knowledge of words to find other words and names of things that are brown? I really hate whiny white writers who think that people of color have to do their diversity work for them. It's one thing to read things and learn, like this one did by figuring out that food epithets are offensive and lazy. But really. If you're a writer, you should know how to find words.

Sarah said...

While I think it's really important not to erase skin color, it's definitely equally as important to do the research and represent that character as truthfully as possible given their specific history and culture, not just pick a shade in the paint section and slap it on the story.

People often comment that my children can't be Native because they are light skinned. (OR say that my husband can't be Native (Ojibwe/Metis (and white)) because he "looks white").What do you say when someone says your kids aren't the right color? I don't know how to explain I married into a culture and a history not a blood quantum. My husband just laughs and walks away.

Meg said...

White is also a poor descriptor. I am "white" but I am not white.

This is an interesting discussion. I have a friend who is African American. She said that she and her friends often describe people as being "caramel" colored or "chocolate" or like coffee with cream.

I don't know... some people are offended things that other people don't give a second thought.

GeckoHiker said...

I'm a Cherokee woman who was raised in Florida when my family thought it wouldn't matter. I remember being judged solely on the color of my skin. Teachers would ask me, "What are you?" As a child, I didn't understand the question, or that telling them I was Cherokee might be enough to make them 'happy'. I was also asked by teachers if I spoke Spanish. Also a question I didn't understand. I was raised speaking the same language they were speaking, albeit with a more cultured Southern accent. What the heck was Spanish?

Now I understand that tanned people with black hair in Florida were usually Cuban and spoke Spanish. When I made the highest score on tests the teachers would announce that some other child made the highest score--a whiter child. You see, I wasn't really all that dark, or even all that ethnic. My eyes were actually a vivid green. I was just a little bit different in looks, with a rosy tan, vivid coloring, and cupid's bow lips. I'm told I looked like a doll and not a real child, like many healthy Native American and Hispanic children (Note: Most Hispanics ARE Native American.)

A writer should be able to describe any character at all, without ever describing the color of their skin. Surprise us!

Anonymous said...

Im dark Irish from my mom's side and Native American on my dad's side. I have dark Olive skin with red undertones. I have super dark and super strate hair.... And I have pale green eyes. In the winter I tell people I'm white and in the summer I tell them I'm Blackfoot Indian. Both are true. But where as it's easy for me to describe what I look like it's not as easy to describe what others look like. I too am a writer and one of the hardest things is describing skin tones. What I have found helps in not just to pick a one color but to pick undertones like your shopping for makeup.

Walrusgumbo said...

I admit: this sort of thing is deeply frustrating for me.

Yes: I understand that Indigenous Americans deserve greater description beyond just their physical characteristics. I understand that poorly written Indigenous Americans are a thing.

I'm writing fantasy and trying to push the boundaries beyond the tired and played out settings of Medieval Europe. I want to take inspirations from a wide variety of cultures, and while in my Urban Fantasy setting, I can make sure that the nameless horrors lurking in the forests of New England have their basis in indigenous legends specific to my area (Hobomock comes to mind), there are times I just have a character whose skin color is, in my mind, similar to some of the darker shades of Mesoamerican, the type of folks I see plenty of in my travels to Southern Mexico. Sometimes, I'm even portraying a monster: like an anthropomorphic snake spirit of the Amazon Basin.

My characters see them. I need to relay what they see. In this case: I'm not making in depth commentary on Indigenous Mesoamericans as a whole, nor would I expect this malevolent anaconda demon to share the same culture as any of the countless tribes dotting the Amazon (nor do I necessarily hold the creature's nature against her: she's a predatory creature protecting her territory).

...but when my MC looks up and sees it. I need to describe something. Whether I like it or not: skin color is a very notable feature on a person.

I feel like culture is something that my reader would need to get to know a character to truly appreciate. On top of that: I know that no matter how much research I do, I'm never going to have enough experience to authentically portray the struggles and cultural minutia of indigenous characters. I'll still put in the research, of course, but the best I can do is to show these cultures through the lens of someone with similar experiences to me. As a reader too: when I want a deeper dive into a culture, I do what I feel all readers should do and support indigenous authors.

I'm trying to be inclusive in my writing. Please cut me some slack.