Can I Write A Novel About Minorities Without Using the Word “Milk-Chocolate”?

I’m writing a novel that includes many minorities, and I feel like I should give the reader characters who have more than just “cocoa,” “milk-chocolate,” “caramel” or “coffee”-colored skin.  I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with these descriptions,* but I can’t help but think that there has got to be another way to indicate to the world that a character is not white.  Frankly, I’m just over all of these terms.  I’ve heard them so many times!

One goal I had for my novel was not to use any of the above quoted words to describe characters.

Aaand, so far I’ve failed.  So the answer to the question in the headline is apparently no.

I just scanned through my manuscript and it looks like in moments of weakness I’ve used one or two of these terms, including milk chocolate. Womp.  But I was so proud of myself for using metaphors like “chestnuts,” “wheat” and “peanut butter that has been mixed with remnants of jelly after careless double dipping of a knife” (hey- the last one was a comparison made by a child’s mind- it makes sense!) I guess I was so caught up in those victories, I completely forgot about all the other non-interesting words I used to describe a person’s skin tone.  Thankfully, I’m still at the editing stage!

But seriously, there’s gotta be more options out there right?  And maybe a metaphor/simile that doesn’t include food?

The last time I had this discussion with someone, they suggested I use the word dirt.

Ok, I get it.  It’s brown.  But it’s not just about the color, you know?  It’s about the image the metaphor brings to your mind.  That’s why “mahagony wood” is awesome.  You don’t just imagine a brownish color, but also a smooth, glowing texture.  Something beautiful.  If I say “his skin was like dirt” you’d think of something that was brown, but also dry and full of pot marks.  Wait a minute—maybe I can use dirt. Note to self.

Or maybe I should try to think of more creative foods.  J.K. Rowling described someone’s skin as being the color of “corned beef” in the Cuckoo’s Calling.  She writes,

Detective Inspector Roy Carver’s temper was mounting.  A paunchy man with a face the color of corned beef, whose shirts were usually ringed with sweat around the armpits…

I’m staring at the google image right now trying to figure out if that’s really the image she was trying convey.

Corned beef

Photo by Larry Hoffman

Actually, as I look at it, the Detective might in fact be a white guy who is perpetually red-faced.  This whole time I thought for sure he was black (or otherwise a minority).  I thought with “corned beef” she was just trying to say his skin was brownish-red.  Maybe she was.

(Note: This is a really embarrassing display of my lack of knowledge of corned beef.  Would the picture above be different if it was, like, cooked more?)

Here’s another image I found:

corned beef2Photo by TheCulinaryGeek (Creative Commons)

I think that’s more what I was thinking.  But is that what she meant? I’m so confused.

Either way,  regardless of the race of the person JK was describing, corned beef is still an indisputably creative way to describe a person.  And I’m not saying it’s only hard to find creative ways to describe minorities–it’s hard to creatively describe anyone or anything; however, I do feel like 90% of descriptions of black people in fiction use one of the words I quoted above (and below).

In the spirit of the other blog I write for,  The Write Practice, here is a writing prompt for you:  describe a non-white character without using the words “cocoa,” “chocolate,” “caramel,” “coffee,” or “mahogony.”  Feel free to share in the comments!

*Actually there is something inherently wrong with using the word “coffee”.  I may imagine black coffee, you may imagine coffee with lots of milk.  Another person may imagine it with a little bit of milk.  Too many interpretations.

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