literature,, media

How To Describe POC

Writers tend to reveal their implicit biases when describing people of color (POC). It happens to everyone, not just the typical upper-middle class white woman author.

There are countless discussions on Quora, Reddit, Tumblr and Facebook. And despite the countless and free online resources, there isn’t any clear answer to the question: how do you describe people of color?

A user, whom I will call “Jill”, uploaded a picture of eyes belonging to an Asian man to a Facebook page for writers and asked the group how they would describe the eyes.

I don’t think she did to be malicious or racist. But I don’t think she fully understood how other people would react to it.

When I first saw this post, I knew that there were would be some troubling comments. But whenever I do encounter these things, I am always shocked at how some people can be ignorant. There are hundreds of responses all ranging from poetic descriptions of the character to blatant racist comments.

There’s a lot to unpack in these few screenshots, but for now, I want to focus on Jill. As an aspiring author, and based on her past posts to this group, she was seeking genuine advice. However, her inability to see the complex nature of her questions, leads to me believe that Jill is naive and ignorant.

I’m not writing about this to attack Jill or the Facebook group. I understand the importance of having a supportive community, especially during this pandemic. Rather, I’m using this a a learning opportunity for myself and others. (I see this as an opportunity study people’s rhetoric and their reactions to other comments)

So, as a woman of color (WOC) as someone who loves to read and write, I have some advice for those who wants to write about us.

  • Do not relate WOC to food.
    We’ve all read the cringy phrase “her skin was like chocolate” and “almond eyes” and “she smelled like sweet curry”.
    Not only do these phrases fetishize WOC, but these are terrible cliches. Writers have the ability to create new worlds and immerse readers in a different reality. Yet, somehow, they all seem to recycle the same 3-4 phrases used to describe us. Overall, it’s lazy and tired.
  • Only describe a character’s ethnicity if it’s relevant to the story
    This is a lesson that I learned in my journalism classes. You wouldn’t write about someone’s ethnicity or skin color is it is irrelevant to the story. Why should that be any different for a fiction story? Does a character’s ethnicity add depth to the plot, or is the author writing about a person of color for the sake of adding diversity to the story?
  • Names and identity
    This is a theme seen in many works of literature which proves is significance to human nature. When naming fictional characters, please keep this in mind. If you are going to give them an ethnic name, don’t disrespect the name and shorten it for the sake of giving them an edgy nickname. As actress Uzo Aduba’s mother famously said, “if they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzomaka”.
  • Understand the cultural meaning behind certain words and phrases
    Words like “colored” and “oriental” are no longer used because they are considered insensitive and offensive and shouldn’t be used to describe a character in today’s time.
    Also, using foreign languages should only be done if the author understands the language and all of its nuances. Inserting a meaningful English phrase into Google Translate won’t necessarily be the same in a different language.

As seen in the comment section of Jill’s post, you can see that there are ways to describe people without necessarily talking about race or ethnicity. These people saw a human being and described him as such. At the same time, some other people saw was the “model’s” race.

In the end, it is the author’s job to entertain the reader. It’s not my job to police or edit their stories. And while I doubt that Jill, or the people who commented on that post, will see this blog all I can say is this: people of color are people. Not everything that we do revolves our ethnic heritage or skin color. But at the same time, there are aspects of our culture that others can’t understand if they don’t experience it.

To join the conversation comment, like and share this article.
You can find me on Twitter @k_j_oh and on Instagram @mandu_pod
I am now also on Spoon Radio @mandupod, where we can share ideas and voice chat.

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