Joelle Anthony read hundreds of YA novels in 24 months and has now put together a list of 20 things that showed up repeatedly in the books. Since it’s blog against racism week, let’s focus on this one:
#14 – Using coffee, cappuccino, and café latte to describe black people’s skin
Um, just: Don’t. Ever. Do. This.
(Via J.L. Bell.)
9 thoughts on “Fun With Cliches”
To those who love coffee, comparing people to coffee is the highest praise.
But you should certainly keep your metaphors consistent if you’re describing skin. Says a guy who’s not even cafe au lait.
And, yeah, it’s lazy now.
Unless your pov character is a barrista. Might still be possible to have some fun with it then.
Thing is, Will, if a whole bunch of people with the relevant skin tone say “cut it out, we find the constant coffee comparisons offensive,” do you then say “but I love coffee and I mean it as a compliment! You should embrace your coffee-colored-ness!” Or do you say, “oh my gosh, sorry! I had no idea. Won’t do it again, I promise”?
In writing, I remember to describe people, but have had trouble trying to find the words to describe skin shade… and I’ve thought, “Why do I have to??”
I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s one of those thing where it’s like ‘accepted usage’ and even if it’s repugnant to the writer, they’re told it helps the reader to identify the race of their character… although I think there are less sledgehammer OBVIOUS ways.
But what? I don’t even know what *I’d* rather hear.
In the book I’m writing, one of the best friend characters is black and, honestly, I didn’t have any trouble dealing with this. Because the other best friend has terrifying parents who don’t actually like the fact that they hang out with him because he’s black (just imagine if they knew he was gay), I had an easy, necessary way to get it out there: just saying it in that context. It works fine, I think.
So I guess my approach is thinking about how it actually affects the character in the story and expecting that to lead to less sledgehammer ways.
Really, the coffee skin thing is more problematic as a huge cliche. Describing important characters’ physicality without hitting it too hard is difficult period.
Oh and on the skin shade thing — I don’t think it’s necessary unless it’s a factor in the story. The race needs to be communicated, but is skin shade the best way to do that? I suppose occasionally white characters get described as pale/fair or tan, but you don’t see it that much.
The coffee and cream descriptor is totally overused, but it’s such an apt and useful metaphor that I can see why lazy writers (and blues singers) keep reaching for it.
Interesting about the redheads.
Yes, very funny about the redheads!
I must say I went and read the list with trepidation, fearing it would be too late for me to avoid all sorts of these cliches–but the only one I have in my novel is the dead mother, which really is just de rigueur, how does your questing protagonist NOT have a dead mother?!?
Jackie M, but of course, the latter.
Now wondering if I’ve ever described anyone as having skin the color of any sort of coffee.
Gwenda, if there’s any concern for POV, the only skin that gets described is the skin of the Other. As an example that probably only makes sense to me, some people argue that the earliest Christians couldn’t have been Essenes because Essenes are never mentioned in the gospels. For me, absence is an extremely compelling argument; I rarely specify my own group.
This is a great discussion. There’s another one going on about this topic at http://writingya.blogspot.com/2007/08/he-peered-coyly-through-extraordinarily.html
This is something I added to that one, and there’s a bit more on my site too.
“…it seems to be a way white authors have of treading lightly around skin color.
I haven’t noticed this in any books by black authors or about black people.
I notice it in books where all the characters are white and they have one latte colored friend. It’s almost like white people are afraid to call someone black.
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