Writing Race: Yellow, Brown, Black, and White

Brace yourselves for yet another superhero movie featuring brown bad guys. Speaking of which, a visitor recently wrote to ask about the YouTube video I submitted for the presidential debates:
I'm wondering why you use "brown" to describe your sons. Color words (red, yellow, black) have been rejected and are being discarded. I'm wondering if it is a term you've chosen or is it acceptable to the Indian American community? I understand that "brown" may encompass several ethnic groups. Because color words have become unacceptable and for the sake of parallelism, perhaps another way of conveying their ethnicity and the dangers of being judged on outward appearances could be used.
Judging by the way they put the word "brown" in quotes, US News and World Report and Newsweek also seemed startled by my choice of words. Here's part of the answer I gave:
Brown does seem to be acceptable to my generation of Indians and younger ... I wonder if color words are being discarded by well-meaning whites, but championed by the next gen who are grappling with race in a way we never did — see yellowworld, ultra brown, and black planet as examples.
But does that mean brown, yellow, and black people can use color words but white people can't? How should authors of any race describe the skin color of our characters? Shaken and Stirred and TadMack raised the issue during the summer, with Tadmack asserting convincingly that "it doesn't make sense to avoid race ... we can't pretend that since it's not directly affecting us that we've somehow transcended it, to arrive on a rarefied, colorless plain."

In the effort to be inclusive, though, authors can fall into a Rowling-esque race-writing trap (elaborately detailing the range of white people's facial hues and expressions-- pink, blushing, pale, etc.,-- while describing her black characters solely as ... black.) But can we blame J.K. Rowling, or is the English language itself over-stocked with the vocabulary, similes, metaphors, and imagery needed to describe white people?

A communal discomfort over race, the desire of well-meaning people to "move beyond it," an in-your-face response by younger people, and the limits of a language with a history of describing European people -- there's only one way for a storyteller to diffuse the tension, in my opinion, and that's through the power of humor. Any other ideas?


Karen D said…
speaking as a beige woman - I personnally think Brown is the only correct color description. I am very pale, but I am not white. I have never seen someone with Red or Yellow skin (except maybe on star trek), I have seen some very very dark brown skinned people - but they weren't black.
We are all different shades of brown.
The idea that white is normal/expected- happens alot in newspaper articles too, a bank robber's skin color isn't given unless they aren't "white".
I would like to read a book/article/short story where the darker shades of brown are treated as if they don't need to be described and then a someone pale like me is described as "a white girl with glasses." I think it would be difficult to do it successfully.
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks, Karen.

"I would like to read a book/article/short story where the darker shades of brown are treated as if they don't need to be described and then a someone pale like me is described as 'a white girl with glasses.'"

I'm SURE that's been done in the kid lit world, especially when a book is set overseas. Problem is I can't think of any examples of a book like that set in North America. Paul Volponi's "Rooftop," maybe? Any others?
Pooja said…
I use "brown" all the time to describe myself. ("Brown" has also entered the conversation to encompass Hispanic-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc.) Would it bother me if a non-Brown person called me "Brown?" Hasn't happened yet, so I can't give you a definitive answer, but I think it might rub me the wrong way.

As for Karen's desire to read something in which someone pale is described as a "white girl with glasses," I am absolutely sure this has been done, though I can't think of an example this early on a Monday morning. It's the way many people of color see the world anyway. Find kid lit books written by authors of color and see how they describe white people.
Mitali Perkins said…
Catch-22 for white writers, and those of us writing about other races -- we need to seek to be inclusive, and yet not "rub people the wrong way" with our physical descriptions.
anonybrown said…
I myself use "brown" all the time. All the high school students(the ones of south asian/(middle eastern not so much) origin, older,younger, we all use it to describe ourselves.
Im not so sure how it came to be, maybe it seemed a lot more "teen" than South Asian, and its "cooler" i supppose.
AmreekanDesi said…
I find it annoying to see indian people describe indians as brown. Just my personal opinion, but there was this indian guy i was talking to, and he kept describing 'indian girls' as brown women, and i got quite irritated. Guess i am not cool anymore :)
BTW, people who live in India are of varied colors (white, yellow, brown, light brown, dark brown, and black), but somehow all american indians DO seem to be brown. Makes me wonder why.

I, to use a very interesting expression i read recently, am a DBD (Desi Born Desi)
bookbk said…
I'm pretty sure Jacqueline Woodson does this in her novels, or most of them: describes her African-American characters' appearance without reference to race, and specifically labels Caucasian characters as white. Wouldn't be surprised to find it in Walter Dean Myers' books, either. Or any novels with an African-American child or adolescent narrator (and author)

In books by beige folks like me, though? Not so much.
Anonymous said…
if i were a crayon, i would be PEACH. not WHITE. just thought i'd put that out there