Are there some words or phrases to describe a person of color, specifically darker colors, when their skin tone changes with emotion? Like for a white person, they'd turn pale when scared or turn red when angry. Even feeling sick is described as turning green. Is there a different description for people of African or Indian descent?

I haven't witnessed people of any color in a high state of emotion much in my life, so I don't have a personal referance (blessed be). I imagine the causes behind it are the same since these changes are due to humans' red blood draining from our face or filling our veins. However I want to have POC in my story without laying it on too thick, and therefore want to be clear when referencing their skin changing color in such a situation.

I've heard of being "ashy," but I understand that to mean dry skin, so I assume that wouldn't apply here.

  • 2
    Black people have written poems about this: poemhunter.com/poem/and-you-call-me-colored You might want to check out medical information healthline.com/health-news/…
    – Erk
    Nov 7, 2022 at 10:12
  • Ashen is certainly a valid noun, meaning deathly pale, or grey-white and very unwell. Whether it is often applied to POC, I'm not sure.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 8, 2022 at 11:09
  • Thank you Erk for the poem reference. I will point out that the line about being blue is interesting since blues music basically originated from African Americans, but then I don't know the etymology of "feeling blue" meaning sadness. To clarify my question though, I'm looking more for descriptors that the point of view character (or narrator) would use to describe another character in the prose rather than the feelings themselves. Nov 8, 2022 at 12:48
  • @DarkDragonLady Likely due to the association of tears with sadness and blue being the color of water. Thus, if someone is looking sad, they are "looking blue" because they are crying or about to cry. Blue also has an association with introspective thought, which if you watched Pixar's "Inside Out" is the reason for the evolution of Sadness, which is one of the core emotions (this is actual psyche stuff, the film isn't pulling it out of no where.).
    – hszmv
    Nov 8, 2022 at 15:04
  • I find the tumblr site Writing With Colour useful. I couldn't find anything directly related to your question, but they have some comments on blushing and you might be able to find something with a bit more digging. writingwithcolor.tumblr.com Nov 8, 2022 at 20:57

2 Answers 2


I read the poem referenced in the comment. I don't think it applies. I see that as the black person speaking to a non-black person, saying "When I was ..., [you saw me as black]" and "When you were ..., [you describe yourself as] ".

In this case, you are asking about the appearance of one POC when in emotional or physical distress to another POC.

I am not a POC. I am of European descent, and at 68 I am a splotchy reddish color with bluish veins. I have noticed that my color doesn't change much with emotions. I have never been pale with fright, not have I been red with rage, nor blue with sorrow, or green with jealousy. I don't know why, but those "colors" don't reflect my personal experience.

I have, and do, experience other physiological responses to emotion.

I can quake when afraid, or uncertain, or in awe.

I can feel my throat dry in anticipation.

I feel my eyes grow in my head when angry.

Your POC character probably (again, I am NOT a POC) feels similar things. Depending on the culture of your story, they may have much greater experience than I do with negative expectations and unfair treatment, and your character will have their personal response to whatever experience your narrative brings.

And, although people of my racial extraction may be blind to skin color changes in Persons of Color, it may be (and I can't say either way) that skin color changes are visible to other POCs. My bet, should I need to make one, would be that the same state-of-being cues that I see in another non-POCs would be matched by state-of-being cues that one POC would see in another. The human brain and visual system are acutely tuned to reading the emotional and physiological state of people we encounter. Unfortunately, in my life, I have little routine engagement with POCs, and my brain and visual system haven't been trained for optimum interpretation.

Were I writing this, I would probably stay away from color references that I didn't have good backup for from a POC directly, and stay with physiological characteristics that -- I presume, perhaps incorrectly -- are independent of skin color.

  • If you quack when afraid, or uncertain, or in awe, you might be a duck! :)
    – Onyz
    Nov 14, 2022 at 16:26
  • Drat, you decoded my secret! (edit to follow. Thank you)
    – cmm
    Nov 14, 2022 at 16:27

There are numerous tells that are independent of skin color that can be used to figure out emotional states. Such as cold clammy skin or profuse sweating, which indicates that the person is in a fight of flight statement (either way you slice it, you're going to need to cool off, so your sweat glands get the coolant flowing). It's also a good indicator of sickness.

Goosebumps are also color-neutral to all humans (it's actually a left over response from when we had more body hair... our bodies are essentially making our hair stand on end to make us look bigger to scare away predators... like when a cat arches its back. It's just... now we're less hairy...).

"Turning Red" or "Looking Green" are more figures of speech than they are actual indications of emotional states or health and may not be due to actual color changes. "Turning Red" or some variation are used to indicate someone is getting angry or upset, and may not necessarily mean they are becoming flushed... but could be related to the blushing sensation making someone feel unusually warm, which would no doubt happen whether or not your skin is dark enough to see it. In the same vein, turning pale will still feel cold. "Looking Green" might not be associated with skin color so much as the fact that unpleasant fluids discharged from humans are greenish in color and dead things often have a greenish decomposition (spoiled or rotten products tend to look green). Tellingly, the fourth Horseman (Death)'s "pale horse" is often times depicted as a sickly green (Black, another death color is given to Famine. In the untranslated text, the word used translates to both pale and green, and is generally used when describing the color of dead bodies... additionally the first Horseman rides a white horse... Death is the only horseman who is explicitly named). So generally, when someone says "you look a little green" it's not "you're looking a little sick" but "you look like death warmed over."

A good thing to do is read up on what body functions a polygraph is actually monitoring. As a lie detector, a polygraph is absolute crap. As something that can monitor minute physical changes that can determine someone is in some highly emotional state, they are pretty decent (the idea is that when you lie, your body will change in different ways as you think through the lie and changes are used to indicate you might have been lying. At best, all it indicates is that something about the question is more complicated than the simple binary choice of "yes" or "no" can indicate and you're momentarily assessing if your answer is more "yes" or more "no." It could even just mean you weren't expecting the question. Or even that you're nervous because a polygraph is damn uncomfortable to be strapped into.).

All the changes the polygraph monitored are race-neutral, though some could be the underlying cause of blushing or having a pale look when scared (specifically pulse monitoring and blood flow, but can have effects that aren't just visible on people with certain skin colors).

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