Fleshing things out: skin color in genre fiction.

So, I’ve finished my first full-length novel, and I’ve been puttering around with other short projects. It occurs to me that nowhere in my manuscript do I wax poetic about this person’s “peaches and cream” complexion or how that person has skin “like coffee with milk in it.” I just don’t think it’s relevant to know precisely what shade somebody is; I certainly don’t walk around in my actual life looking at people and trying to pick the appropriate food or beverage to describe them. And, yet, there’s a huge preoccupation, in romance-oriented fiction, with describing exact skin tone.

Personally, I don’t find it particularly useful in picturing a character. Going on about “the caramel expanse of Rahul’s chest” only serves to 1) Make me hungry and 2) Creep me out. Because here’s the thing: When you make it all about a character’s skin color, it becomes more about fetishizing them than it does about seeing them as an individual. It’s an external, sexual gaze rather than a more penetrating one about who they are on the inside. i.e. Rahul is hot because he’s this brawny, well-oiled exotic being and your gaze lingers on how different he is from you.

And there’s also a race/class issue at play that makes it even more uncomfortable. Lady Margaret, an English noble, is a prized commodity because she is “milk-white” and “her lips are like rosebuds.” So, what, if she happened to have a tan from playing in the back gardens all day, she wouldn’t be a viable heroine? There’s a sense that her paleness is a cherished trait, while a minority hero or heroine’s darker skin is something to be lusted after, because it’s forbidden.

I can only speak to my own experience as a writer, and the fact that I’m South Asian in origin. It doesn’t occur to me to lavish such erotic attention on the differences between my skin and somebody else’s. For me, there’s too much socio-political baggage attached. So, it’s not something I would use to get a character all revved up in the bedroom.

But clearly many authors do. And what spurs that impulse? I’m curious as to what shapes how people talk about race and skin color as an aphrodisiac of sorts. How much does a writer’s own racial perspective come into play? Is it acceptable if a non-white writer is writing that way but hinky if it’s a white writer? Is it just a default setting that nobody thinks too closely about? 

Now please pardon me while I go drink some coffee with milk in it…

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8 thoughts on “Fleshing things out: skin color in genre fiction.

  1. I agree that skin is often fetishized. However, anyone who knows the culture of India knows how much lighter skin color is prized over dark. The sales of skin bleaching cream are quite healthy.

    Similarly in Latin America, lighter skin is prized, just as it was in African-American culture, because of white supremacist views on beauty. The Native American and African dark skin was demonized as were non-white facial features.

    Conversely, in much of American literature, the default race and color is white. Therefore, the skin and race of non-whites is usually brought up to note their otherness.

    For non-white readers, this can be both a blessing and curse. While it’s good to see someone who is other than white in literature (especially genre fiction), it can become irritating when the non-white (or “other”) is dehumanized through stereotype, for instance.

    As a writer, can’t describing skin color can be a good way of conveying social/psychological status or showing diversity of human phenotype? Not all Indian have the pale skin of most Bollywood starlets. Just as most African-Americans don’t have black skin.

    If you were writing a book about African-Americans or Dominicans or Cubans or Mexicans or modern Native Americans or Indians, cultures in which skin tone differences and colorism are part of life, wouldn’t not mentioning skin color be odd?

    Think of Lena Horne. Skin tone greatly affected her life. As a light-skinned black woman, she had greater access to success but because she was not white, she was still held back in her career. During her youth, Horne felt both love and resentment from other African Americans. Whites, as much as they appreciated her voice and beauty, still treated her as other. The darkness of her skin and her African heritage still relegated her to second class status and segregation.

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    • As a writer, can’t describing skin color can be a good way of conveying social/psychological status or showing diversity of human phenotype?

      Absolutely, if that’s what your book is actually about. The social politics of skin color and race are incredibly complex and there is absolutely a place for those discussions. What I’m speaking to specifically is the fetish aspect, where no one goes deeper than the surface, using the description of skin to put forth this idea of the exotic erotic.

      If you were writing a book about African-Americans or Dominicans or Cubans or Mexicans or modern Native Americans or Indians, cultures in which skin tone differences and colorism are part of life, wouldn’t not mentioning skin color be odd?

      Not necessarily. Again, if it’s a situation where their skin color is an issue, there’s a point to it. But, at least in my personal experience, racial minorities don’t walk around navel-gazing about skin tone differences 24/7. I have a whole book full of Indian characters, with a few white characters sprinkled in. And who is what shade of pale doesn’t really have a political place in their particular narrative.
      There’s definitely a difference between writing an experience that’s more like Lena Horne’s versus writing about a hunky, golden-skinned hero that makes the white heroine’s pulse race.

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  2. Well, if you are writing about Lady Margaret in a historical, then yes, the fact that her skin is milky white does matter. Look at Anne Boleyn, the fact that she had olive skin and was not the image of beauty at that time was often used against her as a weapon later on at her trial. Having a tan wasn’t fashionable until the 1920’s. If Lady Margaret had a tan that meant she wasn’t wearing her hat and gloves outdoors,which shows what a rebel she is.

    Describing people’s skin color in terms of food bothers me though. And white people do seem more fascinated by skin color than people of color are. I read an Eric Jerome Dickey novel called “Milk in My Coffee” where the hero thought the heroine was white, and got a lot of flack for dating a white woman. Of course, he then found out that she was 1/4 black, and he was titillated by the fact that he knew something that other people looking at her didn’t.

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    • Well, if you are writing about Lady Margaret in a historical, then yes, the fact that her skin is milky white does matter.

      Point taken! It’s very much an indicator of class bias for particular eras…and even in modern times. I mostly whipped out the beleaguered Lady Margaret for the comparison to my fictitious Indian hero, Rahul. Her paleness and privilege in contrast to his sexy Otherness and how tricky that dichotomy can be.

      Describing people’s skin color in terms of food bothers me though. And white people do seem more fascinated by skin color than people of color are.

      That’s what I was trying to figure out a way to ask…whether other people of color have this preoccupation and I’m “doin’ it rong” or if it’s a more Caucasian narrative trope.

      And, seriously, my skin color is not a food. I wouldn’t even know how to describe it as such. Chickpea-colored? LOL.

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  3. Mala,

    I agree and disagree. If all participants in a story have the same skin tone, then it becomes unnecessary to mention it. However, when there are differences, skin color does have importance in many racial minority groups.

    Especially in cultures where skin color is a component of the standards of beauty and social/political power, it should be noted.

    I think of people like Eva Longoria-Parker, a Latina of Native American, European, and African ancestry, who, for instance, has spoken about how members of her family used to cruelly call her the brown one, showing their disregard for visible traces of her Indian and African heritage. I’ve read several accounts by Filipino women authors describing their experiences with colorism in their family.

    And, I doubt that you would find many African-Americans would say that skin tone isn’t part of their of consciousness when dealing amongst themselves. Even within families, its normal for African-Americans to have children of different skin tones because of mixed ancestry.

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  4. Just found your blog (recommended by a mutual friend)! I’m so happy because you’re blogging about everything that I think “Oh I should write something about that” but I’m too lazy. And your posts are right on.

    Have you seen this? Racial satire done well.
    http://deepad.dreamwidth.org/53344.html
    The comments are particularly great and worth scrolling through, e.g. “I sometimes forget that my skin is not actually chocolate, and I begin to gnaw on it.” “Sometimes I look down at my coffee-colored hands, and EVERY TIME I try to drink them it’s a no-go. I have caramel-colored friends who have had similar luck pouring themselves over ice cream. SO CONFUSING.”

    Anyway, great blog!

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    • Thanks, Minal! I’m pretty lazy about blogging…I’ll go days without a peep and then suddenly post four days in a row.

      Those comments on DeepaD’s Dreamwidth journal sound hysterical. I’ll have to give the post a read later today.

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  5. Pingback: My Island Homicide: a book review and writing someone else’s face | No Award

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