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Sorry if this is an ancient solved problem to ask in 2019, but I googled about this and Quora isn't really answering me. I searched for the words black and race and politically as key-words on this website but still not a satisfactory answer.

The setting is 2013 in the UK, and my character is approaching three people two of them are sitting on a bench in a garden and one guy who is an elderly black man is standing.

As my character is approaching them, my novel reads;

I walked towards the trio who looked like they were having a conversation. They all seemed welcoming. A teenage looking girl and elderly women were sitting on the log and an elderly black man was standing in front of them.

I don't want to say it as black man and I am not sure of using the word African (will that clearly indicate without being broad). I want to express this just to mention the diversity in that environment although later on in my novel I have clearly expressed him in detail.

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    You don't describe the ethnicity of the other two characters. Are you assuming that the reader will interpret them as white? It makes a contrast that you might not want, to point out that one character is black, but nobody else's skin is worth mentioning. – Kit Z. Fox Mar 11 at 12:36
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Mar 17 at 2:49

14 Answers 14

42

Describe them.

There's nothing wrong with mentioning that he is black. However, in that segment, you're missing an opportunity to actually describe them, which will both make for a more interesting read, and illustrate his ethnicity.

E.g.

"I walked towards the trio. They were engrossed in a spirited conversation; it was as though they'd known each other forever. The first person was a teenage girl. She cocked her head to the side as she listened. Auburn hair fell across her shoulders, muting the bold plaid of her shirt. The woman opposite her gesticulated as she spoke. Dry paint speckled her horn-rimmed glasses. Was she a painter? It was hard to tell. Her clothing matched her hair: mute silver. Hardly a creative choice. The third participant nodded. Lines covered his earth-brown skin, as though he'd spent long years in the sun. He watched the painter with a slow warmth, like an old friend, or perhaps more."

  • Thank you for the answer, this teaches me a lot about character description. But my character is away from the trio and she won't notice that level of details about them, but I get the gist of the technique, this is helpful. – user37170 Mar 11 at 7:57
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    A nice description overall, but reading "...earth-brown skin, as though he'd spent long years in the sun" makes me think about an hardened farmer. But maybe it's just me. – Liquid Mar 11 at 9:00
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    @Liquid's point is that it sounds more like the person is darkly tanned than it communicates race. – jpmc26 Mar 11 at 21:07
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    Depends on the Earth. s-i.huffpost.com/gen/952420/images/… casaescondida.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/… cdn11.bigcommerce.com/s-avp5aszme5/images/stencil/1280x1280/… I don't typically think of the dark, rich soil color first when someone says "Earth," probably because most of the exposed dirt I saw growing up was pretty dry and light or red clay. – jpmc26 Mar 12 at 1:24
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    @jpmc26 you probably want to keep away from using the word "chocolate" in this context – freedomn-m Mar 13 at 13:55
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A few points, in no particular order:

  • "A black man" paints a very different picture from "an elderly black gentleman" or "a tall, black-skinned young man". In the first case, the skin colour is the only thing the narrator sees about the man. That's a bit disconcerting if you look at it like that. In the other examples, skin colour is one of many characteristics, it could have just as easily been "red-haired".
  • You definitely don't want to use 'African' for a person who might have lived in the UK for three generations. Your character doesn't know the person is a foreigner - it's not like the story is set in Russia.
  • As an alternative to 'black', you can use 'dark-skinned'.
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    A couple years ago, when black students in France were protesting, I heard a CNN reporter refer to them as "African-American". Unless they happened to be transfer students (unlikely given the political nature of the protest), "American"-anything was a pretty ignorant thing to call them. Agreed the "African" assumption would be just as ignorant. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 13 at 2:36
  • "Dark-skinned" can also flow nicer in some descriptions when describing a character's physical details. – DoctorPenguin Mar 13 at 11:52
  • Why would he not want to use "African"? It's written in a first person POV, perhaps the narrator could simply infer it from the skin color. In France we do that a lot, you see a tall pale woman and you assume she must be some kind of Scandinavian. That's just human heuristic at play and would make the narrator appears to be genuine. – soueuls Mar 13 at 15:18
  • Big +1 for the elegant solution of adding one more adjective to de-emphasize it. It's no longer the defining trait. – wetcircuit Mar 18 at 17:40
20

Just say he is an elderly black man! Since the skin covers most of the body, it would be the first thing the narrator notices about them, especially if they consider the fact worthy of remark (e.g. wondering what part of Africa they are from, per Rasdashan's answer or describing the lines on their skin per user49466's).

I don't think there's a need to skirt around something as plain as their skin colour or create mini puzzles for the reader to figure out while they're reading...

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    +1, you shouldn't make your reader do too much work by obscuring details. It's OK to dress things up with extra descriptive language, as long as it doesn't detract from what you're trying to convey. There's only so much effort a reader is willing to put in. – Doctor Jones Mar 11 at 12:07
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    @CreativeKid because they are rude names, they are only 1 step away (or beyond) paki. – WendyG Mar 11 at 14:06
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    @CreativeKid Ahh so you are worried that the word "black" will be considered derogatory by the reader? As far as I'm aware, it is an acceptable word to describe an erm... black person. Though that comes with a disclaimer that I am white... – colmde Mar 11 at 14:36
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    @CreativeKid don't apologise, you were called the rude names not me. I just meant they left a nasty taste in your mouth because they were nasty names. – WendyG Mar 11 at 17:22
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    @CreativeKid wendy was saying that it is not ok for someone to call you that (it isn't, and I'm sorry that happened to you). But those names are on a level much worse than black, which is the accepted and in fact polite term to use – Aethenosity Mar 12 at 3:14
15

It might be more strange if your character instinctively knows the man is Kenyan without knowing who he is. Perhaps he is wearing a small pin in the shape of the Kenyan flag or talking about Kenya’s performance in the World Cup.

You could have something like this

I walked towards the trio, who seemed to be having a conversation. They all seemed welcoming enough, so I knew I wouldn’t be interrupting. A teenage girl and an elderly woman were sitting on the log, the man faced them, talking to them. I wondered what part of Africa his ancestors came from; might ask him someday. He seemed prosperous and was older, possibly retired.

I have a friend and former coworker from Senegal. His English is excellent, but has a slight French accent since French is spoken in Senegal. You could mention a detail like that - hearing an accent and knowing it sounded X.

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    For what it's worth, this may make your narrator seem somewhat naive.Not all black people have African heritage, and in fact large parts of the black community object to African, African American, African British, etc. manhattan-institute.org/html/… – Cain Mar 11 at 16:03
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    @Rasdashan There's likely a lot of variation based on culture and country here, but I think the above has more confusion without avoiding any potential offense. Many people from northern Africa have Arabic appearances, while a significant portion of South-Africans are Caucasian – Cain Mar 11 at 16:15
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    The idea is good, but the execution is kinda weird. Without context, I might read this as the narrator wondering way back to when we all left AFrica. – Azor Ahai Mar 11 at 18:43
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    @CreativeKid I think this is a bad answer I recommend not writing it this way – theonlygusti Mar 12 at 2:18
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    The example text says more about the narrator than the subject. "I wondered what part of Africa his ancestors came from" - really? Would he wonder what part of Europe a white guy's ancestors came from, and make a note to ask about it? Why the assumption of Africa in this case? Why the assumption that that person would care or even know where their "ancestors" came from, or want to talk about it? The narrator of that example passage seems to have an awful lot of baggage and make an awful lot of presumptions based on skin colour, all to avoid writing the word "black". – BittermanAndy Mar 12 at 10:35
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There is nothing wrong with being black, and there is nothing wrong with saying that someone is black. If your character walks to a bench with an eldery black man sitting on it, write that your character walks to a bench with an eldery black man sitting on it.

Skin color is like any other descriptor, and it help your readers identify the character if they don't know their name. For example, if they have an conversation, you can write "And then the black man stood up and left" and the reader will know which character that is, same as if you would describe him as "tall" and then write "And then the tall character stood up and left".

Another reason to mention he is black would be if it matters to the story, but that is up to you as a writer.

  • yes, it was not about being wrong in being black, it's that I wanted to highlight the event is multiracial so I wanted my character to make a casual reference of that to the reader. Maybe you are right that ' ...there is nothing wrong with saying that someone is black', but given the entire set of the plot, to me, it seemed impolite to make a reference to an elderly person like that, but again it's just me. – user37170 Mar 11 at 16:26
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What race were the women and the girl? Why didn't you mention that?

Your problem isn't that you're using the term "black." Your problem is that you assume white is the default.

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    Which is pretty reasonable in many places of the world. In other places there is other default. In some places (western megacities, perhaps even whole countries like USA) there might be no default. – Vladimir F Mar 12 at 15:11
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A common failure in writing I notice is the over- and under-detailing of people, places, things, and events.

If your character is in a high-stress action-scene situation where every second counts, they'll be paying attention to the generally noticeable things such as the area they are in, how many people and of what groups (us vs. them, red vs. blue, etc.) are there, what items they have at their disposal, and what noteworthy things occur (a person firing a gun, glass shattering, the Earth trembling, etc.).

In a calm, relaxed scene, it only makes sense that they'd people-watch, note calming environmental changes, and pick up on details like facial features, diction, and apparel.

A great movie to watch in order to see this rule in action is Green Book, which gives you plenty of opportunity to note the high cheek bones, Penny Brown skin tone, the diamond head shape, the prim attire, and the preferential, eloquent diction of the main character, Doctor Donald Shirley. At the same time, with the situation where a police officer pulls the car over in the rain, we can remember what was generally said since our focus is pulled towards the words, but the details of what the racist police officer looks like are easily forgotten. (Whether the story is true or false in how it was told is a separate matter I'd rather not get into.)

When it comes to writing, you just need to describe the man based off what you can reasonably assume your character would notice. If you think your character would only notice his skin is black, then call him a black man. If you think your character would see the man in a symphony of purple prose, then describe the man in great detail. As for what he looks like specifically, though... that's on you. It's worth noting, that there is very little obvious difference in facial structure between a black person versus a white person. The things most affected by race are hair, eye, and (obviously) skin color. He can be tall or short, thin or fat. He can have any facial shape, a large or small chin or nose. His lips can be large like the caricatures of ole', or they can be thin like a thread. Describe him as you would any other character, but mention his skin color so that the audience knows. If you do, I recommend doing it in a way where you make it as little about his race as possible, though. For example:

And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she's very like Prim in size and demeanor. Only when she mounts the stage and they ask for volunteers, all you can hear is the wind whistling through the decrepit buildings around her. There's no one willing to take her place.

This line comes from The Hunger Games and is describing Rue. So many people read this then were outraged when Rue was cast as Amandla Stenberg even though the story says she is a black girl. Why? Because Rue being black wasn't made a big deal of in the text. The fact she was a young girl was more important. The fact she reminded Katniss of Prim overshadowed all mention of skin tone. People forgot she was black and instead viewed her as white, Hispanic, or Asian because her race wasn't a central focus of her character. This is detailing done right. You describe the things your character would see. In Katniss's case, when she looked at Rue, she could only see a little girl who reminded her of her sister. What does your MC see when s/he looks at the man you're trying to describe?

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    If what I said came across poorly, please let me know. I don't understand why I got a downvote. – Sora Tamashii Mar 11 at 9:50
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    Thank you for such a detailed answer it explains to me a lot. In my case, the specific purpose is to make a point the people of different races and ages have arrived at the resort, so I just wanted to casually mention at that point that, she sees a black man talking to two ladies. I upvoted your answer, it was helpful. – user37170 Mar 11 at 10:44
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    Not my downvote, but it could be that you go on for several paragraphs about generalities before you get to the point that's directly relevant. It takes a while for a reader to understand how what you're saying relates to the question, and what it is you're saying in fact. If someone didn't finish reading, they might downvote for seeming broadness and lack of relevance. You might want to rearrange the answer, so that the last half of it comes first. :-) – Galastel Mar 11 at 11:07
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    +1, it's a good example from the Hunger Games. And Rue should have been cast as black, as written. – Amadeus Mar 11 at 12:49
  • @CreativeKid Glad you found it insightful. – Sora Tamashii Mar 11 at 13:02
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I once had a story set in a future setting and my protagonist was an African American teen. In his introduction scene, he and his friend are discussing the school's upcoming production of Shakespeare's "Othello" and my protagonist was being encouraged to go for the titular part (who in modern renditions, is portrayed by someone of African descent). He protested that Iago, the villain (and an Italian/Venitian) was the role he wanted because villains were more fun to play and Iago is Shakespeare's best villain.

The scene established that the hero was a theater nerd AND if the joke was caught, set up to show that the future society was much more accepting of people of different skin color that the fact that the play is debated to be an early commentary against racism never crosses the minds of kids. Othello was the hero and Iago was a villain.

Of course, my Beta readers missed the joke (Othello isn't the most well known Shakespeare play) and I had to point out what I was doing. The best advice I got was to make explicit mention of the race, but I couldn't get it worked in because, my narrator and my character didn't think skin color differences were anything of note.

2

It seems that you want to want to say the simple fact, but afraid that people will be sensitive for that. In that case, you can allude to the skin color by mentioning their origin first. So if it doesn't affect your story much, say that he is a Kenya person, and people will take the skin color for granted.

2

It depends on the knowledge of the person guessing. For example, a UK white person growing up in an ethnically diverse area of the UK might use a country such as Jamaican, Kenyan, Senegalese. Someone who knows traits might use regions such as West African, Caribbean; or tribes. If they are surrounded by, and are familiar with, one (other), culture then they might use black to try and be polite, (and possibly coloured if elderly and from the UK).

2

If it's not important to the plot, setting, or characterization

Then don't mention it. Mention relevant details, whether those are age, gender, mean- or friendly-looking, etc.

If it does matter that the reader knows their skin color

Then just call them black. Or brown. Or dark-skinned; whatever provides the most important details. If race is a key point, call them black. If sun-burn is going to be a factor, call them dark-skinned, etc. Still include other relevant details like age, gender, clothing, disposition etc. Also describe the other people; if it's important that the elderly man is black, it stands that the skin color of the other two likely matters, whether Caucasian, black, Indian, etc.

  • Upvote for Chekhov's gun. OP said they wanted to mention that it was multi-racial, but if this isn't important, then don't mention it – awsirkis Mar 13 at 0:02
1

It depends on your readership.

The extreme sensitivity to racial or gender issues is not equally present in all parts of the current (2019) population. Some people would explode on you for calling someone black, others wouldn't even notice it. You even see the different attitudes in the answers given already.

So if you know your audience, then your answer depends on that. You don't want to upset them unless it is for making a point, so if you think your audience will be upset, change the term or cushion it with a phrase like

...an elderly man was standing in front of them. John instinctively thought of him as black, then quickly corrected himself and mentally replaced the word with "african".

Using such phrases (but not overusing them!) allows you to use the term that is the best description (many african people are more brown than black, and there are white people living in Africa, too) without putting you in the line of fire of social justice warriors.

  • Thank you for the answer, I wanted to make a specific point, that different races have come at the place through just a casual remark. Though your answer explains me using phrases. It was helpful +1. – user37170 Mar 11 at 10:54
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    I disagree with calling him African. It's been edited out of the question now for some reason, but OP originally stated that the character is a second-generation immigrant, which means his parents were Kenyan, but he himself was born in the UK after they emigrated there. Calling a person born in Britain "African" is more likely to offend them than calling them "black". – F1Krazy Mar 11 at 11:47
  • @F1Krazy yes I edited it out because Rasdashan misunderstood it that my character noticed him being Kenyan from distance, I thought that might prevail so I edited it out. – user37170 Mar 11 at 16:22
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"Black man".

There is absolutely no need to block out a person's ethnicity due to the extremely strict current political climate in Northern America and Europe. Especially in a novel! No adult black (or white or asian or whatever) person feels attacked by referring to their ethnic background unless there is a negative intention. Lower educated people tend to interpret ethnic description as "racism", which is wrong.

0

Just say black man. You're only describing his skin color, and black is a good, quick way to do it. What you have to ask yourself is, do you absolutely need to mention his ethnicity? Is he a main or a background character, and does his ethnicity have any further meaning? Do you want it to affect how the reader perceived the character? Ask yourself, do you need to specify the race to make the book/scene better?

  • It's not a matter of making the scene better, it's that the character is black, and if you don't specify that, many white readers will assume the character is white (see this answer). There doesn't need to be "any further meaning" to a character's ethnicity, just as there isn't in real life. They just are that ethnicity. – F1Krazy Mar 13 at 14:06
  • It's fair enough to argue that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter whether a minor character is black, white, Asian, or whatever. But it clearly matters to the OP, otherwise they wouldn't have asked this question. – F1Krazy Mar 13 at 14:08

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