I admit-it often takes me a while to absorb certain concepts and critiques.
I was first made aware of the ways of describing skin tone as food (spices and coffee and chocolate) in a writing workshop. A fellow workshopped found an instance of it in my story. I filed the critique away for future examination. (There was a lot wrong with my story, so there was much to take on-board). The idea that describing people of color using food imagery didn’t bother me before. But since I was alerted to it, I began noticing it all the time.
• My niece and nephew are biracial; they are often called “Cafe Au Lait” or cinnamon.
• Personal ads often use various these descriptors. Mocha skin. Chocolate Princess. Honey.
• And Urban Fiction and Blacksplotation Films are full of titles using those conventions: Chocolate Revenge. Coffee. etc.
Because it’s so ingrained, it doesn’t bother me enough to throw me out of the story. For instance, how many white protagonists are described as being rosy-cheeked, or apple-cheeked or with skin as white as cream/milk? Tales of Snow White (and her occasional pal, Rose Red) depend on these surface descriptors.
Years after that critique, I began to see the point. Describing skin tone as food is kind of lazy. It belongs in the purple prose hall of shame, right along with “russet-maned,” and “chestnut tresses.” (Or “man root” and “secret flower” in describing genitalia). And it does bother me now in erotica (or porn).
Since objectification is one of the purposes of erotica/porn, it strips away all the obfuscation in other texts. It is clear that you are meant to (sexually) consume the Chocolate Mandigo; the Onyx Thug is supposed to dominate you, and his very blackness is part of what is supposed to make you feel dominated.
Food as skin-tone serves as a euphemism for othering.
Some texts are “grandfathered” in such uses. (E.G., If an author is being deliberately archaic or in some cases, viewing a character through the lens of another character). But from now on, there will be no more Cocoa-Mocha-Coffee-Tea-Milk-Cinnamon beauties or hunks in my fiction. (Exceptions made for parodies and satires).
2 Replies to “Othering or 50 Shades of Chocolate. Food as metaphor for skin-tone.”
This is a very interesting point. Character descriptions usually involve appearance and it is the writer’s responsibility not to fall into cliches but we’re not always aware we are using them until they’re on paper.
I tend to describe hair and eye colour and physicality such as height and shape rather than skin colour; hair colours are often food-focussed because that’s the language of hair dye in the UK, and it’s a nod to that!
I saw the title of this post and as always with this topic I had to think about it for a while.Why am I not offended? I read another post where the opinion was if the other white characters’ colouring is not described and only the people of colour are then it is offensive. I agree with that, I have read that in a story and found it disturbing. However to call the use of food lazy is a bit much.
What is more recognizable than food? What is the benefit of eliminating a useful means of conveying the extensive palette of flesh tones? Honestly in my neighborhood my brother was one of four Red’s, my sister and I were called brown sugar or honey and those darker were many different kind of ash or smoky. Within our communities we use these words. What is the language used by us everyday to describe us? I am not going to malign or avoid writers that use this metaphor. If I see fit, I will use it.
When Nel becomes certain on the train that her mother beneath her clothing is tapioca (Sula), I understood immediately what was being conveyed. No one can do what Morrison does, but overall I have to disagree with you.
Peace and joy,
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