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Say I have a kid's book with children of varying skin tones: a boy with British/Germanic background, a girl with Indian parents in the middle point of Indian skin tones, a girl with a Germanic background mother and a Turkish father, and an African-American boy.

What are some good words to use to describe those skin tones without using the generic and not actually that descriptive black, white, and tan? Also, avoiding the use of food to describe darker skin tones, as this association with food is sometimes considered offensive.

I'm looking for vocabulary, mostly.

  • Why is it important to put this effort into describing skin colors beyond black, white, ...? Are the colors essential to your story? If you want to be unique with that detail, tell us why it is unique to your story. – John Smithers Oct 17 '14 at 22:17
  • @JohnSmithers Because I find it's always better to use more specific language than non-specific, no matter what the story. "Black" is not very specific. Neither is "white." Especially considering that from a strictly color-theory stand point, human beings are never true black or true white. Unless they're some sort of fantasy mutants. – MiraAstar Oct 17 '14 at 22:46
  • Have you tried Crayola? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Crayola_crayon_colors – Lauren Ipsum Oct 17 '14 at 22:49
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Since it is a children's book, you can't use "umber" or "sienna" or complicated color words. (Heck, I still don't know what "khaki" is!) And you said you don't want to use food. That means you need to think of things that 1) are always (roughly) the same color, and 2) are well-known to children. Shades of brown are going to be tough. Random ideas that come to mind:

Animals. This could be used to comi-tragic effect. For example, if there are best friends, one of whom is unusually pale and the other unusually dark, the bigoted kids could call them the "skunkers." Or, the two friends might be proud of their contrasting skin colors, and call themselves "the panda pair" or "team zebra." (Or "team orca," then go beat the crap out of the bigots. But I guess that's not a children's book.) Other colored animals: brown mouse, brown bear, black bear, polar bear (white!), black crow, light brown mountain lion, black jaguar, black Lab (dog).

Cartoon/TV characters. Charlie Brown (very fair) and Dora the Explorer (light brown) come to mind. Not my area of expertise, and your book could get dated quickly if you choose badly.

Building materials. Fresh sidewalk (lily white), asphalt (very black, but don't use "tar" since historically that was a slur), pine wood (light brown or tanned white), oak table (medium brown).

People groups. This obviously requires the readers to know something about other people groups. But "black as a Nigerian fieldhand" is probably as dark a skin tone as exists, and "white as a Swedish gamer in December" is probably as light a skin tone as exists (absent albinos). Most middle-schoolers would probably figure those out. The in-between tones will be tough, especially since most people groups with in-between tones have a wide range of tones. So, "Arab brown" and "Mexican brown" are meaningless. "Northern Italian" and "Southern Italian" would be meaningful to most adult readers, at least as tropes, but most middle-schoolers won't know the (supposed) difference.

In short, I think you'll have to approach describing skin color from a variety of angles, if getting the correct tone/shading is important to your story. Which begs the question: Is it? If not, then don't stress about it. Just say "light brown," "brown," "dark brown," etc. and let the readers colorize your characters with their imaginations.

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There is a lot of, often erotic, fiction that spends quite some time describing the sensual qualities of the surface appearance of people (color, shape, texture, smell, sound). Usually that literature chooses color terms that both describe the color well (we all have a clear image of what chestnut hair looks like) and evoke a pleasant sensual image (cockroach hair my be the same color, but most of us wouldn't be attracted by it).

For example, a person might be described as having a cream colored skin, and cream is something that we associate with cake or rich soup or the already-sexualized coffee or other tasty and pleasant foods, so a cream colored skin is loaded with what those foods mean for us: sensuality, delight, plesasure.

I don't see how food analogies must be offensive, except to those to whom any taking note of skin color is offensive. I think that being momentarily overwhelmed by the sensuality of someone's appearance and ignoring for the time being that person's intelligence and wit is completely fine and not a sign of disrespect or shallowness. Your description of your character's skin will be embedded in a depiction of that character's humanity, and if that well-rounded character has "beautiful chocolate skin" in the eyes of another well-rounded character, who both have a multi-faceted relationship with each other, then why not?

The politically correct alternative would not even be to use Pantone color numbers or RGB codes, but to not to refer to skin color at all. But since we cannot avoid perceiving skin color in real life and are always influenced by that perception, showing that influnce on your characters is to me necessary and a sign of xxx.

If your character is a racist, you must show how he perceives skin color in a prejudiced way, maybe by using negative analogies, and if he is in love with the person he looks at, you must show how he perceives skin color in a prejudiced way also, except that here the prejudice is a positive one. Your descriptions are part of your characterization – only not of the person you describe, but of the person who is described as looking at them. So think about who is looking, what their relationship is to the person they look at, and how this person would perceive that other. Then chose the right words to illustrate that perception. And if the right word is "olive" or, an example from a comedian, "whore skin umber", then use that word to effect in your readers those emotions you aim for.

If it is your narrator who describes a character, and not another character, think of the narrator as a character and different from yourself. Give your narrator a personality that is expressed in the way he or she narrates, and choose the decriptive terms to illustrate that personality.

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    Interesting perspective, but since these are children in a kid's book, I don't think an erotic viewpoint on the subject applies. That's probably my fault though. I've edited the question for clarity's sake. – MiraAstar Oct 18 '14 at 14:57
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    Oops, didn't realize this was a children's book. But the basic idea still applies: if one child views the other in a positive way, why shouldn't they see each other as cream or chocolate colored. Kids love chocolate and cream, so it will have positive connotations. And even if you want to avoid food, find a color term that fits the attitude of the characzer whose eyes we look through: "Little Mohammad loved his white canary Rha, and he was fascinated how their English guest Rosemary's skin was almost the same color as Rha's feathers. He had never seen anyone with skin so light." – user5645 Oct 18 '14 at 20:16

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