Archive for May 1st, 2014

POC characters and foodstuff descriptions

So, it has recently come to my attention that some POCs really hate the use of foodstuff in the use of descriptions of POCs. I didn’t know this before and to be honest, it kind of surprised me.

Eunice has this incredible post about troubling tropes regarding Asians and Asian-Americans in YA. I’d suggest reading it in its entirety, but the main thing that caught my eyes was this part on food stuffs and almond eyes:

Another general role of thumb if that you’re describing POC characters, particularly in terms of skin color and eyes and they sound like a tasty Starbucks beverage or cafe pastry (caramel, mocha, coffee, etc.) yeah….no. Food-related metaphors tend to be terribly overused and overdone. Likewise, even more so when the foods used to describe skin color were also the same food items that were PART OF THE SLAVE TRADE, such as coffee, cocoa, and chocolate. Likewise, this is also in conjuction when POC characters’ skin tones are the only ones described but never white characters – thus contributing to the not so common trend of inadvertently establishing ‘white as the default’ narrative, particularly when it comes to racially ambiguous characters.

And there’s Clairelight’s debunking of the whole almond eye thing.

Aside: the whole concept of “olive” skin has baffled me for the longest time also.

I don’t disagree that it’s a lazy way of description. I don’t disagree that the whole slave trade food stuff thing is disturbing.

Where I ran into a bit of a block was Clairelight’s vehement statement that if you describe an East Asian character with almond eyes, you’re showing yourself to be the fraud you are. Then the statement that white people don’t get the same treatment.



Purely from a “just the facts, ma’am” standpoint…

White people get described with food items all the time. I will agree that the food items in question are not as loaded with negativity as ones like coffee, brown sugar, tea, molasses and so forth. But…

Creamy skin? Skin the color of milk? Honeyed skin for a tanned white woman… Sloe-eyed beauty? Sloe being another name for blackthorn and its bluish-purplish-black fruit.

Before people object, I’ll point out the first time I saw someone described with sloe eyes, it was used on a white character in a historical regency novel set in England.

Nipples are invariably described using some berry or the other. So’s the clit. Hair the color of honey and molasses? Chocolate eyes? Whiskey eyes? Brandy eyes? Bitter chocolate hair? Olive green eyes? Chestnut hair and eyes?

Now I have a mental image of pickled eyeballs in various boozes… olive eyeballs in a martini…

And that’s just what springs to mind without even trying. I’m not saying don’t stop doing it. I’m saying — saying white characters don’t get that treatment just isn’t true.

Then there’s the East Asian almond eye thing.


Okay, I grew up reading a *lot* of Chinese romance and classic novels. I’m just going to point out that “almond eyes” or 杏眼 is so commonly used that it’s the first suggestion that pops up when you type in “xing yan”. Granted, not much else pops up, but the fact is that it’s the first auto-correct. Also, almond eyes are a type of eye shape in the Chinese tradition of divination according to facial features. We also have phoenix eyes, wolf eyes, eyes big as brass bells, yes that’s an E not an A, willow-leaf eyes, etc.

Also, we love food, all right? Eating is as important as the emperor is how I think the saying goes. That’s pretty damn important for a country who believed that their emperor was literally the Son of Heaven, all right?

So we have descriptors along the lines of food: Skin like “congealed lard” (凝脂), teeth like “gourd seeds” (瓠犀), cherry mouth (樱桃小口), fingers like scallion whites (青葱), arms like lotus roots (edible and 藕臂) and peach blossom cheeks (桃花). Yes. We eat peach blossoms.

For the record? Most of these descriptions are in poems that are old. The Book of Songs is over two millennia years old, with the bulk of the poems in it written around 1046-771 BC.

And while I’m at it — if I hear someone get mad about how Westernization has influenced the Chinese love for white skin one more time, I might not be able to keep from laughing.

For one, congealed pork lard is a creamy white. For two, the majority of poetry written in China well before we were exposed to the barbarian influences praise pale and clear skin as the height of beauty. There is a saying that if you’re pale, then it makes up for 30% of ugliness. 一白遮三丑。

*shrug* I already got yelled at by my friend about how almond-eyes is a tired, tired phrase and so I won’t be using it anymore, but it’s certainly not offensive to me.

I’d argue nor should it be, if you have an entire country of people who use that term happily to describe themselves, but hey. The argument can be made that it’s got negative connotations, so I guess each to their own?



Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

All right. *deep breath* I’m going to try and tackle this because I feel like this is something I have to say. I feel a bit like stepping off into the abyss of privilege and ignorant obliviousness, but…

I’m not disputing that Eleanor & Park has certain aspects of it that are troubling. I do not dispute this at all. Wendy Xu has a great summation of just what was wrong about the handling of the subject matter. Laura’s take on it is also brilliant and brings up much needed historical background about that time period that sheds some light on the portrayal of Park’s life. 

I agree with 100% of what they’re decrying about the execution of the book.

What I disagree with and what I expect will get me tarred and feathered, is that I disagree with the opinion of some that this book should never have happened.

The self-hatred, the obsession with height and looks and all of that — that is something my brother went through and still deals with now. It doesn’t matter how much we tell him that he’ll find someone who will love him the way he is and that how he carries himself is more important than his height — it’s something that has made him voice thoughts like “I wish I could hit reset on my life and start over with a new body”.  It’s been a month or so since I read E&P, so I can’t recall if Park just wants to be taller and have more masculine features or if he actively wants to be white. The two I feel are different and it’s important which. One is a basic rejection of what he is and another is a very teenage “I wish I were skinnier, had tits, have a lower voice, bigger eyes” thing that I see as a phase that many go through while figuring out how to be comfortable in their own skin.

As Mike Jung says:

I love Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. It moved me tremendously, and there were moments when I was flabbergasted by the existence of a character whose inner life so closely resembled mine, in ways I’d never found in a book before. I’m not mixed-race (although both my children are), but I spent my middle school and high school years as one of the very few Asian kids in an overwhelmingly white community. I was, and in many ways remain, deeply alienated from my Korean ancestry, and I became as thoroughly assimilated into the privileged culture of white suburban America as I probably could have been.I was confused, and I grew more psychologically distanced from my extended family by the day.

My feelings of self-loathing weren’t rooted solely in my disengagement from my racial and ethnic heritage, but they weren’t separate from it either. I think Park is a character with more than a little self-hatred, a deep sense of alienation from his own racial and ethnic roots, and a very compartmentalized, incomplete understanding of himself. And some part of me fell back and sang out in relief that a book had captured those old feelings of mine so truly and so well.

Of course, he also goes on to discuss how his feelings have since become more complex once the racism was pointed out.

I feel, for some, it might be comforting to know that they are not alone in their complicated feelings about themselves. I feel that for some, it might give them some hope that somewhere out there is a person who will love them as much as Eleanor loves Park and find them attractive for what they are, not despite what they are.

I feel that the measure of comfort that might be derived from that is worth the existence of the book. Barring that, I believe that if we say white authors aren’t allowed to write POC characters unless they get it completely right will just continue the trend of having too few books with POC characters rather than helping it. It’s like every author’s debut novel — you do the best you can and after a certain point you need to put it out into the world, learn from it, and then do better next time. And I’m not saying the first ever book you write as an author. I mean the one that’s actually worth publishing and has had more than just your friends and family’s approval.

I’d rather more people tackle POC issues than not. I just would. I believe that slightly damaging perceptions are still better than nothing, especially in this case where I believe the intent is good. Art and the improvement of it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Some might argue that Park’s self-hatred and Eleanor’s exoticising of him reinforces racial stereotypes and feelings of self-inadequacy and might be harmful to kids’s psyches.

I would say, yes, maybe. But then maybe we shouldn’t write novels involving the thought of suicide, depression, anorexia and a whole slew of other things.

No, maybe not entirely the same, but on the other hand, isn’t it?

They’re teenagers. The question of whether we infantalize our children for too long is not something I want to address here. I’m saying that it’s not impossible to imagine teens being that oblivious, that ignorant of the historical context of things (I especially bet most teens now won’t know the historical facts that Laura laid out), to consider their blinding Romeo and Juliet passion as something understandable if not laudable.

I do wish that Park had worked through more of his problems, but to be honest, I believe that Eleanor’s love for him helped. She let him see that he was attractive to her and that was important. Yes, she was othering him the entire time, but I saw that othering as part of the fact that he’s essentially the fairytale prince from another land come to bring light into her life. Which is not great, but if we’re going to allow Prince Charming stories from Disney…

Which, yes, I’ve heard arguments against that too.

But I believe that if our children read broadly and deeply, this isn’t going to damage them. At worst it’s going to be some of the same bullshit we see in media, but then we can’t keep them in a bubble of perfectly rendered input forever.

The only way to work toward perfection is to try and fail and try again.

*throws up a shield against rotten tomatoes*