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I'm not talking about describing someone as 'brown-skinned' or 'having brown skin' or even specific phrases like 'brown people', I should expect the former two to be acceptable and the I know the last one to be complicated enough to avoid if you don't know what you're talking about; rather I am talking about simply introducing a character or referring to an unimportant character with a phrase like 'the brown girl'. The dilemma that I am having is that this sounds specifically like a racial modifier, but the intent is more to mirror the effect of saying something like 'the green girl', as in, the color of her appearance in general, not just her skin. In the case of green, people's skin is normally assumed not to be green, so the reader can infer that green is in reference to her clothing specifically, and her skin is some more reasonable color. However, in the case of brown, while the reader correctly infers that since people's skin is often brown, that the girl has brown skin, I then expect that they are inclined to go too far and assume that this is only in reference to her skin, and perhaps her overall appearance is of some other color. I think this probably does not work at all considering something like "the black girl" seems like a completely unambiguous racial description, albeit inaccurately casual for the tone I am writing in.

The problem is that I struggle to come up with a way to resolve it without doing something else entirely - which is fine, it's certainly not important, but it's the kind of language issue that feels like it should have a cleaner solution. To clarify, I do NOT want the answer "just describe her more specifically" because the point is the rhetoric of a clear image with almost no verbiage. It is however a fair answer to say not to bother with trying to do so at all.

The best I can think of is to use a more specific shade of brown, but that doesn't really completely sidestep the problem and introduces some new ones - it isn't weird for someone with brown skin to wear a brown shirt, but it would be pretty remarkable for someone to wear a shirt the same specific shade of their skin. "What's the problem" you might be asking, "isn't that very vivid with a short description like you're wanting?" But unfortunately the image is so bizarre that it doesn't even want to come to mind. "The green girl" is not a crazy image, it's just "whoa, she's wearing all green, that's the first thing i notice when looking at this person". This doesn't really translate well at all to natural body hues I think, so I'm hoping that either I'm just wrong and people do get the right interpretation, or that there is a simple alternative that's evading me at the moment.

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  • You fail to explain what you actually want to describe with the phrase "the brown girl". In what way is she brown? And why is that relevant to the story? Do you describe any of the other characters in this way ("the white boy", "the yellow woman")?
    – Ben
    Nov 28, 2023 at 9:51
  • I consistently am introducing characters with a single adjective about their appearance, and my 'green girl' example in fact previously occurred, yes. It is not of any vital importance it's just an attempt to supplement my story with specifically visual flavor with as little verbiage as possible, and I like to utilize parallel structures like this. I am nearly aphantasic so I do not tend to write many visual descriptions. As such, the precise image the reader gets does not matter as long as it's understood as a descriptor of general appearance as opposed to a specific racial one.
    – user61513
    Nov 28, 2023 at 10:08
  • Most readers will try and find a real world correlate to such descriptors. Your "green girl" evokes an image of a person with green skin in my mind. Other people might have other images in their minds. If that image doesn't make sense in the context of your story, the phrase will confuse me. If there is a consistent mismatch between the images that your descriptions evoke and the context of your narrative, I'll consider that bad writing and stop reading. It's therefore bad practice to use descriptive phrases if you don't mean them in that descriptive sense.
    – Ben
    Nov 28, 2023 at 12:19
  • Oh, and to answer your question, yes, it does come off as weird to me.
    – Ben
    Nov 28, 2023 at 12:44

2 Answers 2

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Color terms that also have a meaning of race (red, white, yellow, brown, black) in conjunction with a noun referring to a person (man, woman, girl, boy) always evoke that racial meaning.

If you want to refer to other aspects of a person's appearance, name it ("the woman in the red dress", "the white haired man"). If you want to refer to the skin color, be specific ("the brown skinned girl").

All ethnic terms are considered problematic by one group of people or another. Avoid them, unless you do not specifically have a narrator whose personality requires that he or she uses those words (e.g. a story told by a person from a specific period in time or a portrait of a person that holds certain views).

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Yes, it comes off as weird and offensive.

To those of us sensitive to racial coding, the racial inference is inevitable, the inference will be about skin color, not hair or dress, and may or may not be intended as a slur, depending on the context.

In a crowd of people, a question like "What does Bill look like?" might be answered as "He's the only black person in the room," without that being a racial slur, just the easiest way to identify Bill.

But in other contexts, the exact same answer would be considered a racial slur; for example if the question were "Why do you suspect Bill took it?"

The most efficient way to avoid "brown" being interpreted as skin color would be "The girl in brown."

As per your comment: That is one more word, 3 more characters. And it is a single adjective, the word "in" is a preposition, that changes the adjective "brown" to be specifically the color of her clothing.

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