Writing Marginalizations: Why “Tan Skin” Isn’t Enough

I’ve been meaning to write series of posts talking about how to write marginalized characters. With everything that’s happened recently, now feels like an excellent time. For anyone wondering what qualifications I have to give you writing advice about marginalized characters, I’m a queer, neurodivergent, non-binary POC finishing off a degree in Creative Writing and working as an editor for two lit mags. My #ownvoices book comes out in a week.

(P.S. I chose the image above because it’s one of the worst/most offensive descriptions of skin tone I’ve ever seen. If you want to start with what you shouldn’t do, see above. The image is from Skin Renews Skincare on Pinterest.)

So, tan skin. I can’t even detail the number of times I’ve heard, “but it says they have tan skin. That means their a POC.” If you’re wondering why this doesn’t make sense, take a second and think about summer and beaches and yacht parties. Really, just think of an basic white movie. Remember all the people talking about how they want to get tan. It’s so wild! It’s almost like “tan” is a super ambiguous, rather subjective word that means different things to different people and can very frequently be used to describe white people!

So, without further ado, here’s a little “How To” when it comes to writing skin-tones for POCs.

  1. Tan isn’t enough.

I’m so sick of seeing words like “tan”, “dark”, or “olive-toned” being the sole indicators of POCs. First and foremost, as I stated before, each and every one of these words has been used to describe white people at some point or another. Think of all the “super sexy white boys” with their “tan” skin, sometimes referred to as “bronzed” or literally just “dark”. Think of all the light skinned people from Spain or Italy described as having “olive-toned” skin. It just doesn’t cut it.

If you’re looking to describe a color that can’t be mistaken for a white person consider brown or black. If their skin isn’t quite so dark, that’s totally fine. In fact, there’s nothing inherently wrong with bronze, tan or olive-toned so long as these aren’t the sole indicators of your POCs race.

2. Stop using food analogies.

Your black character doesn’t have chocolate or coffee colored skin. That girl isn’t caramel. That boy isn’t mocha. Even if you don’t know why food analogies are bad (hint: they objectify POCs and “other” them from white people), you should at least have seen these discussions going around. They’re not new.

And so people ask, but then what can I possibly compare them to?

“Her skin was as brown as a rich, earthy soil.” “His complexion was a soft, woodsy brown.” “Their skin was reminiscent of-” amber, cedar, animal furs, aged paper, charcoal, obsidian. If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, google it. Put in some effort.

3. It’s not one color fits all.

Some people don’t mind food analogies. Many people do. Some people don’t mind being told their skin is “as brown as a cardboard box” while others will find this offensive. Understand that you might make a mistake, but the best thing you can do is talk to POCs about it and get their opinion. Don’t fight them. Hear their opinion and take their advice. And always go for a second and third opinion. Just because one person doesn’t mind being described as “brown like my clogged toilet drains” doesn’t mean most people won’t be disgusted by it.

4. Don’t be afraid to be blunt with it.

Don’t just rule out the possibility of saying, “She was black” or “They were Chinese”. Just like the colors mentioned above, these don’t completely satisfy your character’s description, but if you’re worried that people might not view your POC as a POC, this is a backup plan that basically takes the blame off of your shoulders.


How do you write POCs?

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