Words. And how we use them to “see” skin colour in a book…

I am reading a mystery series. Or at least finished the first book in the series. Now, I’m going to start this by saying I enjoyed the book a LOT. I’ve been reading a lot of “mainstream” mysteries of late because they keep my brain engaged and I’m writing an urban fantasy so there won’t be any “voice leak” into what I’m scribbling down.

I mean I really was enjoying the book, reading along and liking the construct of the main character when a single phrase kind of brought me to a screeching halt…

“…skin stained a dark brown…”

This was used to describe a person of colour, someone of East Asian descent.


I’m not going to go on an outraged rant about this. Instead, I want to have a discussion. Because people can’t seem to grasp the concept of talking on social media so I’m stating this clear and loud at the beginning of this. Because stuff like this is complex in some ways… but simple in others.

I will continue to read the series. I like the author’s phrasing and work. Do I think an editor should have flagged this word? Yeah. Do I think anyone actually saw it? See, that’s the question… do you see the words? Do you hear yourself say the things you say? Do you see the ripples they cause? Do you care?

I am going to assume it was a word flourish that was simply used. No malevolent intent just… a word. But it kind of says a lot to someone who might not be that “default” because stained has some burdens behind it. From being dirty to altered from its natural state.

My own skin colour changes often. My base is definitely darker than porcelain and if I’m in direct sun for more than half an hour, I can kiss my foundation level goodbye. I have been driving up the SoCal coast and said to my passengers, “If we don’t make a left turn soon, my left arm’s going to be five shades darker than my right.”

But I never thought of myself as stained. And neither do I want to. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they were stained away from a pure colour or dirtied because of their skin tone.

So, I will definitely watch the words I choose and ask my editors to do so as well. Small shifts mean a great deal to acceptance and tolerance. As does talking about it.

credit to angelica dass

17 thoughts on “Words. And how we use them to “see” skin colour in a book…

  1. Jennie Faries

    Walter Moseley is a mystery writer I highly recommend who handles the issue of color in a very effective way. No character is ever described as white or black, each one is described precisely and lyrically by the exact tone of their skin. He leaves no room for judgement.

  2. Just going off that phrase alone, not having any knowledge of context or intent, I would have taken it from an artist’s perspective. When I stain a canvas, or piece of pottery I’m simply making it a darker tint. I’m not making it dirty, or even wanting it to look dirty, just deepening the color. That’s also what I got from that phrase, and specifically the use of the word “stained” in it.

    Just a different perspective.

    I do understand the battle authors have with staying relevant and using descriptors that some readers won’t find offensive. You guys have my total respect.

    1. Yeah, as an artist and author, I am very cautious about context and in this case, it was a description of skin as a colour, not stained by nicotine or another substance. There wasn’t another perspective to take on it. And that’s okay because it does lead to discussion.

      1. MissJoanie

        Most of us are not artists and stain for me implies a problem, a defect, which requires removal.
        I have just come back from 10 days holiday in the sun and because of my genetic makeup I am considerably darker than my usual hue and some people react to me quite differently.
        So, yes when selecting words think about them in their broadest possible interpretation. You have an audience you are not just writing for yourself.

      2. It sounds as if the author was trying to use something different and perhaps thought this would be a “creative” word to use. Most especially since you enjoyed the story as a whole, it seems to have been both a talented author and a good book.

        Word usage like this are where betas and editors come in. 😀 Unfortunately, for so many indie writers today, that seems to be a step that is missed. Not sure if it is a money thing, fear, or just not knowing who or where to look for help. ANYWAY Before I fall down a rabbit hole and go to New Zealand to find an apple…SQUIRREL!! I will just say, don’t give up on them for one faux pas, just the two cents of an old woman who has seen much. I would probably reach out to them, but again…Old…Speaks Her Mind… Yada yada! That’s me!

        Have a MMerry Yule, Lovey!

    2. I wasn’t giving up on the writer. I even said that. Mostly, I just wanted to have a discussion about word use and sometimes we choose a word for the “taste” of it but don’t really look at it. We do have to be careful and oh yes, sometimes editors just don’t see the word. 😀

  3. Kendra J Patterson

    I agree it should’ve been flagged. I don’t describe people that way but I’ve read things like that a lot. It’s demeaning IMO. I do however describe myself as being “as white as you can be next to albino.” It’s not something I’d say about others but I’ve said it about myself.

  4. Skin colour is almost always a political concept rather than anything to do with actual colour. My fair German husband once compared his arm with that of my uni best friend who was ‘black’ Trinidadian. His summer skin was at least a degree darker than hers, if anyone was looking for a crayon or make-up. .
    Having said that, I too would initially have thought of ‘stained’ as being an art term. But I wouldn’t use it because it’s quite obvious if you think for more than a second that it can be taken very differently. I would suspect the writer is naive and the editor blinkered. They need people like you to call them on their ‘blindness’ – maybe as someone who admires the books and as a writer yourself you could write to the publishers praising the book but explaining how that word choice hurt.
    Meanwhile, thanks for opening the discussion.

  5. Chris Gorman

    ok- Stain may have dual connotations and could be perceived as inappropriate. Stained teeth by red wine and coffee is deemed un-attractive, however stained wood, whereby by the stain enhances and brings forth the richness of the grain and depth of character is complimentary. Antique Colonial houses used stain to improve appearances, prior to development of paint, and I grew in one such house in Rhode Island. It seems a glass half full/empty type of conundrum and depends upon the readers perspective, as beauty is dependent upon the eye of the beholder?

  6. voyagerrenee8

    You are leading by example Ms Ford and I have tremendous respect for the way you invite discussion and learning without creating total censure or divisiveness. To me those words are ugly in any context related to skin color. Having said that, I am white and have been lucky to have people around me and lessons from diversity training that have given me a deeper understanding of why this discussion is so important. If I read these words 10 years ago, I think I would have breezed right by it without much thought….and still maintained I embrace diversity and inclusion. Growing up white IS a different experience from those of colour & we must keep the dialogue going to mitigate unconcious bias. I needed to read your post today. It gave me faith that we can continue to try to learn from each other vs slaming doors, building walls, and perpetuating hateful divides.

    1. I think we should always talk about things. And see where we are in life. Because the world changes and we evolve our language. I am always up for a discussion on how we can bridge understanding

  7. Gail

    I find most romance writers I read use more flattering terms to describe skin color, caramel, mocha, chocolate… lucious foods mostly, and beautifully descriptive. Maybe that’s why I enjoy them so much, all skin is appreciated.

    1. There’s some controversy about using foods as descriptors for skin tones and that’s not something I’ve unpacked for myself. I dont normally? Or at least I don’t think I do. 😀

  8. Katherine M Stice

    The question of what words to use to describe someone with a physical or mental challenge can also present challenges. There are many web sites purporting to list the most PC terms to use, but just about any word or phrasing could be challenged by someone as having negative connotations. I use a wheelchair to get around. Technically, I am “confined to a wheelchair,” but what’s the point of saying that? Are people who walk “confined” to shoes? I prefer to just state the fact that I use a wheelchair, just as an able-bodied person uses shoes to walk in. And what does mentioning the wheelchair have to do with me, the person. The debate rages on for most of the terms you can come up with. The cumulative effect in society of using words with negative connotations, though, is important, even if it’s subconscious.

    I don’t get too hung up about the terms people use to describe me. I pick my battles, and making the world more accessible to everyone is more important than what people call me…actions speak louder than words, or something like that. Some people with skin colors of various shades may or may not care so much about the words used either. But as Rhys says, “do you see the words? Do you hear yourself say the things you say? Do you see the ripples they cause? Do you care?” As someone who is trying to learn to write fiction — and write it well — I must keep reminding myself to get out of my comfort zone when coming up with characters, and to be very thoughtful about how I describe those characters.

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