new favourite insults:
- absolute bagel
- useless paperclip
- first bread slice
- yellow marker that was used to colour over something dark and now colours a really distressing muddy yellowish-brown
- tangled headphone cord
- ketchup pre-cum
Dear white people,
I don’t think you’re getting the joke. The joke is that white people don’t, in fact, get described like that. White skin gets described with terms like “tanned” and “pale,” terms that in this context are understood to just refer to the range of skin colors of white people. These descriptors are self-referential and rely on people understanding what white skin looks like, instead of scrabbling for comparisons to objects the readers are familiar with. All terms for describing white skin boil down to “it’s this specific subtype of white person skin color”. As I showed in my last post, none of the actual objects that light skin is compared to are literal matches for skin color, and nobody seems very interested in hunting down exact matches for white people’s skin color. And that’s if authors even bother to describe white people’s skin in the first place. White skin is often assumed to be the default, and race or skin color is only noted when it deviates from the “default”.
The skin of people of color is often described in excruciating detail, and as N.K. Jemisin points out, is often "described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade - coffee, chocolate, brown sugar". I’ve seen books where the authors barely mention that most of their characters are white, let alone describe their specific skin tones, but lavishly describe skin of their characters of color, making sure to specify the exact shade of brown by comparing them to inanimate objects. Wood. Earth. Spices. Chocolate. Coffee.
There are no words to describe dark skin as skin itself, just as there are no words to describe light skin as objects. The skin of characters of color can be described with elaborate coffee order descriptions specifying the amount of milk, the flavor of coffee, the exact spices sprinkled on top, detailing their skin color so thoroughly you can practically go out and buy a bucket of paint in that exact shade, and readers don’t even blink. People read a description of a white person’s skin as “tanned” and consider that accurate enough. People read my description of eggshell-colored white skin and giggle.
Sure, it’s a funny post, but there’s a reason it’s funny. It’s not an earnest list of writing recommendations, nor is it racism against white people. It’s mocking a widespread inequality in the descriptions of white people and people of color. Part of the point of my post was providing a vocabulary for describing white skin, so everyone can indulge in silly descriptions as a form of revenge against the ubiquitous invisibility of whiteness in writing. And part of my point was that there isn’t a vocabulary for describing white skin, and that it isn’t described. And let’s think about why it isn’t described. White skin is unmarked. White skin is default. White skin is invisible.
White people, I think you’re missing the point of the exercise here. The point isn’t to give you cute, special new names to describe your skin color. The point is to show you that your skin doesn’t even have a vocabulary to describe its color because it is considered the standard color for skin. It’s an exercise in white privilege to read that post and go “wow, I’m glad we have this vocabulary too!” instead of “shit, we get described very differently from brown people, don’t we?” Sure, it’s a funny post. But it has a point.
And now, for a random example off my bookshelf, to drive the point home: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. Not that it’s particularly egregious or a bad book, but it’s a pretty good example of how this shit works.
Descriptions of white people’s skin:
"You looked like a china doll, with a white ribbon in your black hair, and your cheeks red from excitement."
"They each had tawny curls and swarthy skin."
"Her face was a pasty white with twin spots of rouge on the cheeks."
Descriptions of the skin of people of color:
"Her skin was the color of cinnamon with a tint of raspberry in her cheeks."
P.S. You should probably read the rest of the posts on describing characters of color in N.K. Jemisin’s sidebar. They’re really good, and struck a chord with a lot of people.