For fiction writers, especially those writing multicultural books and those for children, coming up with color names to describe skin is an ongoing challenge. Coming up with color names for skin often crops up with children's lessons on racism and in literature classes, too. A teacher, for example, may want to describe a character in a story or a group may be involved in an activity talking about discrimination by skin color.
Today we are going to turn to writers for some suggestions on how to talk about and describe skin colors without being offensive.
Let's start with two ways of naming skin colors that are inadvisable.
For some reason, brown skin is often described using food items and spices. Calling skin the color of food and edibles has two unintentional and offensive consequences. First of all it fetishes certain skin colors and adds sensuality that better belongs in a romance than in a learning activity or serious discussion of race. It can also seem a little creepy, especially as food terms are most often applied to people of color. Writer Mod Collette says:
"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 second thing to avoid in talking about skin color is naming only non-white skin by special color names. This often happens in novels where only the skin color of people of color are described - the assumption being that being white is the default color.
Here are suggestions for ways to name skin colors. You can find more ideas at Writing With Color.
Use the basics: black, brown, tan, beige, white, pink
Try these artist paint color names: umber, sepia, ochre, russet, sienna, terra cotta, gold, tawny, taupe, khaki, fawn
Add a color modifier: dark, deep, rich cool, medium, fair, light, pale
For more creative terms, you can find natural materials and natural changes to compare skin tones to such as autumn leaves, sand, night, sunsets, dusk.
Write a diamante poem about the color of one's skin. Start off by talking about why using food names is not appropriate. Then brainstorm other ways to describe skin colors. Collect paint samples in white, beige, tans, and browns and use them for inspiration.
Verb, Verb, Verb
Noun, Noun, Noun, Noun
Verb, Verb, Verb
For more directions on writing a diamante poem see How to Write a Diamante Poem.
Here is an excellent skin color analysis activity prepared by the Association for the Advancement of Science. Variation in Human Skin Color