Recently I attended AnomalyCon in Denver. I think it’s one of the best sf/f cons out there, but for a raging introvert with crippling social anxiety, it’s still exhausting. As part of my recovery process, Monday morning I fixed myself a cup of tea. I selected one of my all-time Dryad favorites, ShadowCat. Besides being a tea blend, ShadowCat is a member of the fabulous faeriepunk band Pandora Celtica
and is also talented artist Chaz Kemp. Tuesday morning I selected Rubiee for my tea blend, but she does not pack the same ironic punch.
I should explain what I mean by that. One of the writing panels I chose to attend was titled “But Where Did This Chocolate Come From?” It was mainly about dealing with artifacts that wouldn’t normally exist in the world you’ve created for your characters. Like, say, chocolate in, say, a galaxy far, far away (not to mention long, long ago). But the topic wandered a bit (which is normal), and there was significant discussion of cultural appropriation and why it’s offensive. And since chocolate was already on the menu, talk soon turned to the inappropriate use of food words to describe the features and skin tones of people of color.
Fortunately for me, I don’t think I’ve made this particular mistake. I wish I could say it is because I am a paragon of cultural awareness, but no, it’s just that I’d always thought it was lazy writing. And it is lazy writing. I mean, if you describe a white person’s skin as being “peaches and cream” or “milky smooth,” you’ll come across as a hack who depends on clichés. (And just for the record, I sincerely doubt anybody wants their complexion described as “tofu.”) So why should “chocolate,” “café au lait,” and “caramel” be any better? But it turns out, it is so much more than that.
First of all, it’s dismissive, reductive language. It tries to describe a human being in terms of a consumable or a commodity. I think this was completely lost on a few of the audience members, one of whom staunchly defended “café au lait” as the only way to describe a certain shade of brown skin. I honestly think she felt it was better because it was in French. But it’s so not. Considering that France was a pretty big player in the colonial slave trade — which was fueled by these very commodities — the language choice just makes it that much worse.
One of the panelists, Delilah S. Dawson, also pointed out that this connection to slavery (which, I might add, is not a concept that has been completely relegated to the past) adds a layer of ick to using “almond-shaped” to describe Asian eyes. This is something I’ll admit I’d never even thought about before, so I’ll need to pay extra attention to that. Bearing this in mind, I will also pay attention to the use of wood colors (mahogany, ebony, and so forth), which is something we did not get around to discussing there. Sure, Stevie Wonder sings “Ebony and Ivory,” but that’s Stevie Wonder. He’s allowed. I’m not. And while the use of “ivory” there makes me squirm a little bit as my brain shoves mental images of mangled elephants in my face — and reminds me that my own piano does indeed have ivory keys — I understand that he is going for a specific contrast rooted in the properties of an actual physical object. Poetic license granted, Mr. Wonder.
But this also brings us back around to fetishization, this focus on a single physical aspect of somebody who should be a living, breathing character, not just some token non-white filler to tick off the diversity box on the ol’ character creation to-do list. “Oh, but I’m complimenting the character by giving him or her a desirable trait,” you might say. “Chocolate is sensuous. Coffee is stimulating. Mahogany is expensive.” But you are still talking about a person’s skin color. That’s it. Melanin content, pure and simple. It makes one wonder what happened to the days when a man sized up a woman’s intellect by staring at her boobs.
I feel I would be remiss if I did not go back to that one woman’s defense of “café au lait.” Remember how she insisted on the importance of describing that exact shade of brown? Yeah, I have a problem with that. Two problems, actually.
1. There is nothing precise about the color of café au lait. What color was the coffee before adding milk? How much milk was added? Me, I like a splash of coffee in my mug of milk. My café au lait likely differs radically from your café au lait. Other food words suffer from similar problems.
2. Why on earth do you need to describe anybody’s skin tone so precisely? Chances are that you don’t. In that case, the solution is simple: don’t do that. And if you really do need to get across the importance of a character’s skin color? Well, think long and hard about that why. That should suggest to you much more creative and germane ways to make your point. Instead of telling readers my skin is the color of birch bark or a raw chicken breast, perhaps you could explain my motivation for staying out of the sun and describe in graphic detail the horrific burns I sustained that one time, at band camp.
And if you don’t want to pause for a bit of mindfulness (NB: “mindful” and “politically correct” are not synonyms) before you proceed with your offensive descriptions, well, it’s certainly not my job to force you to do so. But Ms. Dawson summed a lot of this up well in a Twitter rant, and I encourage you to read it. TL;DR: “Write better shit.”
So, does this mean I’m going to stop drinking ShadowCat? No, but I’ll explain why. I am confident that Rubiee consulted her bandmate about his feelings as to being described as a black tea, chocolate, and raspberry beverage. And I am equally confident that Mr. Kemp was at least somewhat pleased at the thought of his drum kitty faerie persona being immortalized in this complex and flavorful blend that brings pleasure to his fans.