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Teachable Moments: Respecting Others Through Writing

I recently learned of an issue, a big issue, that no one seems to be talking about. As a White male, I can never truly grasp the hardship that so many People of Color undergo each day. The concept of mistreating others based on their skin color or ethnic background is asinine, yet it's a very real factor in our society that won't go away until we address it. It is my intention to help foster, among other things, an understanding between different people through my stories. Unfortunately, there's an axiom about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions... In my various stories, I have written about characters who are not White. This includes Blacks, Asians and Latinos, among others. In my fantasy stories I've invented a few races that were inspired by real ones. Humanity is diverse, and I want to celebrate it through the wrtten word.

A successful writer describes their characters in opportune moments with appropriate language, thus painting a picture for the reader. Readers are able to connect to an image when it's described in terms that they understand. So, in the course of my writing process, it seemed perfectly logical to describe People of Color as having mocha-toned skin, or almond skin, or chocolate skin, or one of a dozen other food descriptors. What's the harm, after all, if that food's color vividly matches the person's complexion? Imagine my surprise, and shame, when I learned that the vast majority of People of Color consider such descriptors offensive.

I admit that when I initially learned this, I was confused. How could it be offensive for one's skin tone to be compared to a food if that food helped to explain the color of one's skin? Personally I wouldn't care if someone said my skin resembled the tone of milk or flour or pinkish cauliflower. What's the big deal?

I took to the Internet to research which descriptors are permissible and which should be avoided. I discovered that there are several very good reasons for why People of Color dislike these terms...

  1. Many People of Color have ancestors who were enslaved on plantations where they were forced to grow the goods they are being compared to, like coffee and chocolate. They may enjoy these goods in everyday life, but due to their history they do not want to be connected to them in a way to suggest that they are like them.

  2. Such words fetishize People of Color. Call someone chocolate-brown, and whether or not you intended it, it reinforces the idea that they are good to eat in a metaphorical sense. It tells the reader that they are a food, a commodity, a thing.

  3. These words reinforce the idea of "the other". Rather than simply highlight a trait, they suggest that People of Color are exotic in a romantic and unflattering way

  4. Food words do not bother me because I am White. My experiences as a human are different. I am not a Person of Color and I cannot ever truly comprehend the trials People of Color go through, full stop.

In short, this was more than just a lesson in writing technique. This was a moment were I was once again confronted by that ugly beast that lurks like a monster under my bed--my White Privilege. More and more I am learning how sticky this web is, and how untangling myself is not so easy. Cultivating empathy and sensitivity to the needs and wishes of others is not always simple. Sometimes it's even painful because you have to confront your own place in the world. But, this experience has reminded me that I can make the world a little better by being mindful of my actions...all of my actions.

It's possible that some People of Color may not find themselves bothered by such word choices. But the fact remains that most do not appreciate it, and I totally respect that. I want to make it clear that I never, ever, intended to insinuate anything negative by describing a character with coffee-hued skin. However, the fact that my intentions were pure is irrelevant. Describing People of Color with food words is damaging. Had I thought to do a little research, I would have learned this a long time ago.

Fortunately, none of the stories that I have managed to publish contain such descriptors. Nevertheless, I feel I owe an apology to all who identify as a Person of Color. I'm sorry I put my work over common decency. My next task is to scour my unpublished works for these negative descriptors and delete them on sight.

Some people may argue that we live in a time where people are too sensitive, that some people should just get over it or mind their own business. Sorry, but you don't get to say when a group of people is over their racial trauma. Writing about People of Color in a respectful way that they prefer will help to paint an accurate and dignifed picture. This in turn will help, in time, to foster empathy and true equality within our society. If you are a writer, or even if you aren't, I call upon you to be more cautious with your words. Make sure that what you are saying isn't harming other people, even unintentionally. Don't add any more bricks to Hell's highway. To learn more about this incredibly important issue, check out "Writing With Color: Description Guide" on Tumblir. Part 1 covers why NOT to compare People of Color to food items, and Part 2 provides acceptable descriptors. In other news, I am delighted to announce a few new publications! --The next issues of Scifaikuest and Scifaikuest Online are out in the world! You can find my latest speculative poems HERE and HERE. --I am also thrilled to announce that I have new haiku coming out in the next issues of Acorn and the Wales Haiku Journal! I will post the links when they are available.

Until next time!

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