I drink coffee every morning. I would describe myself very heartily as a "coffee person." I have a big ol’ mug of coffee every morning. It's wonderful.
Not once, neither before or after I add half and half, have I looked at my morning beverage, my glorious infusion of caffeine, and thought, "Oh, I know people who are that color."
My coffee does not ever make me immediately think of people of color. Ever. Mostly it makes me think, "I am so ready to be awake."
Yet all too often this is a default description for people of color in romance: coffee-colored skin. Or, in some cases, mocha-colored skin. Every now and again there's someone whose skin is warm and something like a latte. I have not yet read of anyone who is the shade of a Starbucks Green Tea Frappuccino, but that's probably going to happen in another genre. It's as if it's impossible to communicate that a person's skin has more melanin than mine unless a beverage hue is attached to it.
There's a lot to be said—and not much of it good—about describing people as beverages, as liquids that can be consumed in cups that are disposed of after. The fact that this motif of description is so common adds another layer of WTF to the idea that in romance and other fiction genres, "coffee people" are not those who enjoy drinking coffee (as opposed to Mr. Pibb or tea) but are more often those who are some other color than white.
There has to be a better method of description—and if that can't be achieved, I think we need to come up with a parallel beverage for white people. If we're all hopelessly wedded to the idea of describing people of color in beverage terminology, we need to make sure we have a full fridge of beverages to describe all the characters, right?
I have seen white characters, women particularly, described as having "creamy" skin, "milky" complexions and the like. I'm Caucasian, but I have a lot of freckles. (Yay, sun damage). If I'm a beverage, am I milk with raisins? A soy latte? Milk with congealed wads of damp cinnamon? And if I wear yellow, my skin looks decidedly green. Maybe I am the green tea Frappuccino person! How excellent.
My point is, there are about as many white people who are the color of milk as there are people of color who look like coffee beverages. And this frequent default to describing characters as beverages is absurd. As YA author Sarah Ockler writes on her blog:
[Diversifying fiction does not mean] giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
I don't know anyone who would describe themselves as coffee. Or tea. Or milk. (I am so claiming green tea Frappuccino for myself though.) Yet this description persists. It's lazy. It's inaccurate. It's almost cliché at this point. And it needs to stop.
I absolutely want to read about more people of color in romance. But if they're described as coffee people, I want it to be because they like Dunkin’ Donuts coffee as much as I do, not because my java reminds me of their skin. It doesn't.
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.