Photo by David BlackwellThere are certain rules about writing about my color. Be polite, but realistic. Don’t make it an issue if it’s not. Make sure the skin color of your protagonist matches the skin color of your cover model (you heard me, Bloomsbury). And don’t use cliches like “coffee colored” or “rich and smooth as cocoa”.

The last one is pretty much an industry standard–last week, agent Colleen Lindsay even tweeted about it, saying, “When writing about people of color, find a way to describe them that doesn’t involve comparisons to various coffee drinks or cocoa,” (if you’re not following @ColleenLindsay, get thee to Twitter this instant–she’s full of excellent advice and #pubtips). But if we can’t describe black/brown characters as coffee or cocoa without setting off editorial alarm bells, what can we say?

Technically, I’m a person of color. My skin is brown–not full Indian brown like my father’s, but a brown tempered my mother’s fair Scottish skin, a brown I used to call “baby poo”. Nowadays, though, I call it milky coffee, or caramel. My uncle describes it as burnt toast. Once, I even looked it up on a Behr color chart. I’m 350F-5, also known as camel. Now, much as I like camels (Who doesn’t? They’re sea-sickness on legs!) they bring to mind dry hair, cracked toenails, Mick Jagger lips, and a bad attitude. Which is why, If someone else described me as camel-colored, I may have to fight the urge to spit in their face. (Just as a defense mechanism, of course.)

In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead uses the term “Swiss Miss” as an unintended racist slur, a way for her white main character, Miranda, to recognize bigotry (Miranda uses it because she thinks Julia, the girl the slur is aimed at, pretentious). Throughout the book, Stead uses color in an absent sort of way–Julia, is never given a clear ethnicity. And while I don’t automatically associate myself with the brown character in a book, I did imagine Julia as half-Indian, like me. In fact, the “Swiss Miss” comment even reinforced the idea.

While I’m reasonably sure that this rule comes from a good place, from a desire to not cause offense, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary. My brother, paler than me, isn’t offended to be called white; neither is my mother. White is simply their coloring. Is there a similar rule for other colored characters? Granted, even I know Daleks hate to be called pepper shakers and that Triffids hate it when you call their mothers celery sticks, but is it really bad form to describe elves as pointy-eared, or zombies as gray? Do I have to start describing them as rotten brain-loving necrotids?

The zombie, a rich, caesious sort of color gazed into my eyes, his pools of festering erythema locking on with an intensity that made me flush all over. “BRAAAAIIIINS!” he moaned, reaching out a large, misshapen greige hand. “BRAAAAAIIIINS!”

Interestingly–if we believe the over-simplified writing do’s and don’ts lists out there–browns are the only colors off-limits. No one appears to object to olive or peaches and cream. And some browns are okay–nut brown, and almond brown show up a lot. Perhaps it’s a specificity issue, a result of the ever-growing melting pot. Describing someone by their heritage or country of origin can create a certain image. It’s okay to describe someone as African or Chinese, Swiss or Mexican. But in countries like the US, Australia, and the UK, citing race may not be enough–hence our reliance on coffee and cocoa.

Or maybe it’s deeper than that. Do terms of color fall under the same umbrella as the N-word? (I’ve been called the N-word is both contexts.) Is it okay for me to say I’m a milky-coffee color because I am, and not okay for my mother to say it because she’s not? Are they now a sign of solidarity? My spam filter’s a little overzealous–did I just not get the memo?

And then there’s the all-important question of, uh, importance. How much does the main character’s heritage lend to a story? Has the author described their character as coffee-colored because it matters (Sarah’s reaction to her mixed background is a vital plot point), because it’s what they know (I’m Indian, therefore my character is Indian), or because they want to appeal to a certain audience/catch the “ethnic” crowd? In the first two cases, maybe the industry, the gurus who sit on high and declare writing rules (or the really very nice editors and agents who are trying to help) won’t really care how you describe your character’s skin color. And if it’s the latter? I’m not sure, but I probably won’t be reading your book.

Despite my somewhat flippant attitude, I have been known to take offense–I do take offense–at some things. But I think it’s important to remember that words are just words. A word’s power is not innate; it comes from the meaning we give it.  True, the N-word will most likely always be off-limits, despite its neutral origins, because we’ve given it that perjorative power. But coffee and cocoa? Why not reclaim them, before it gets out of control?

Photo Credit: David Blackwell, via Flickr.