How shall I describe your skin color?
Some time ago, I began to follow Debbie Reese’s blog because the way she raises awareness of how indigenous people are treated in literature – well, woke me up to how poorly indigenous people are treated in literature. This has made me consider how inclusive my own writing is (or isn’t) and the extent to which characters are reliant on outdated stereotypes. As is typical when one is confronted with the social privilege that is woven into the background of our reality, I’ve been uncomfortable with some of the things I’ve read…but I’ve not yet found reason to disagree.
This post is particularly hard for me to handle. First of all, it’s a question I’ve considered myself. I am planning out a story where the main character is a Black man. I want to write about him in a way that is authentic to the experience of being a Black man in our society – and that means describing both himself and other characters as they would be seen by a Black man in our society.
This is how insidious our conceptualization of race is. From a scientific viewpoint, it’s practically useless. From a social viewpoint, it’s sometimes hard to overstate – mostly because we keep insisting that it’s so damned important. From a literary viewpoint, I think it is important because we often use it as a lazy way to denote someone’s otherness. Outdated stereotypes persist, not because they are in any way accurate, but because they convey the sense of otherness that is sought after (in probably the laziest way possible).
There is nothing wrong with wanting to portray people as they see themselves. The problem is that most of us don’t see race in ourselves. I don’t generally see my skin color. I notice it in relation to how it appears normally – so when I get a sunburn, I see it is a bit extra red; when I am sick, I see it is paler than normal; etc. I suspect this is also true for people whose skin color differs from mine.
I also suspect that the reason the question, well-intentioned as it is, feels “icky” to Debbie Reese is that is a question no one would think to ask a white person (I could be wrong, of course). So here’s an exercise for those of us who have skin tones that fall under the heading of “white”: How would you want someone to describe your skin color? After all, “white” is no more accurate than is “Black” or “Brown” or “Red” or “Yellow” or whatever other big headings you want to throw up to gather people under. (Just to be clear, if I am right at all about the source of the icky-ness; then this won’t less it at all.
For me, I would say this:
“At its palest, it is a pale khaki with the light orange of an oak leaf in late September, when it has lost its red and first begins to fade towards yellow. It fades towards translucence at the sheltered joints of the elbow and knee and inner thigh, where faint blue lines of blood vessels fade into view. When it is first exposed to the sun, such as after a long winter, then it quickly turns the bright red of a cloudless sunrise before quickly darkening towards the warmth of freshly turned clay. Where it stay exposed to the sun throughout the summer, it darkens through golden hues to a medium polished bronze with undertones of sun-baked cotton fields before the plants push through the soil.”
It really feels weird to talk about my skin that way, and I’m not sure I’m totally accurate or giving a good indication of what it actually looks like. I think most people would see it as say, “He’s a white guy.” I think that’s the point I want to make – that seeing our own skin through someone else’s eyes is not a natural thing.