more blatantly describing characters as POC makes it harder to take a step forward. Take Hunger Games for example. In describing the character Gale, they specifically say “black hair, olive skin” but I can’t even count how many people gloss right over this and assume he’s white. Again, I’m not sure if everything I said makes sense or if I just look dumb but this has bugged me for a long time, because unless authors go just shy of writing “THIS GUY IS NOT WHITE” many people just don’t get it.
Okay, so I kinda have a lot of thoughts on this and I apologize now for the long text and any grammatical errors.
For starters, the olive thing bugs me because it doesn’t necessarily mean non-white, because white people CAN be olive toned. Italians and Greeks are some groups of white people who are proof of that. I feel like because of that, it is VERY easy to overlook the potential “maybe this person isn’t white” because there ARE white people who are olive. Thus why it’s easy, in the situation like Hunger Games, to say “just put a tan on her and dye her hair.” Because olive does NOT mean PoC.
For example, I remember back when I was a Twihard (I know, I know. Dark times in my life), I read literally EVERY character in that first book as white. Even Laurent, who was described as having “olive” skin was just a tan white boy to me.
So when I later started discussing how Smeyer forgets PoC exist (other than Jacob and the wolf pack, which is racist and a half with that situation), I talked about how characters who were PoC in the movies were made so IN THE MOVIE to be more inclusive, but that wasn’t the case in the books. When I mentioned how Laurent’s actor is a Black man, someone commented how “olive” skin COULD mean a Black person or a PoC. At the time, that didn’t make sense to me because when I googled “olive skin,” all I got were tan white people and pictures of the actor who played Laurent (I’m not even shitting you on this: AT THE TIME, HE WAS THE ONLY POC REPRESENTATION FOR “OLIVE” SKIN).
The only reason why this logic fails in that instance is because in the third book, when Jasper talks about meeting a Mexican vampire (who would have had an “olive” skin tone), he notes how her skin still made it obvious that she was Mexican, but it had that ashen tone that vampires get. In the fourth book, when other PoC vampires are introduced, the same is mentioned with them; how their skin was still brown/dark brown, but they still had an ashen (only word I can think to describe it) look that made them “vampires.” Laurent, however, never got any of that. He was just “olive.” So it’s safe to say that Laurent was written, in Stephanie’s head at least, as a white guy.
But the biggest issue with Hunger Games is you’re talking about the lead. For a minor character like Laurent in Twilight, who gets brutally mauled in the second book/movie, there is nothing to lose by allowing the “olive skin” description mean “a dark skinned Black guy.” With Katniss, her being that dark would freak people out. “Omg, a Black girl as the lead? But I didn’t imagine her as Blaaaaaaack! Ew! Now I don’t care as much!” Jennifer Lawrence, who was riding the coattails of the popular XMen: First Class movie, was a perfect fit. And in this case, give her a tan and the “olive” means Greek olive, not Laurent from Twilight olive.
So, this is why, as a writer, I do NOT use the term olive. Unless it’s a minor character who, if it became a movie, wouldn’t matter what race they were. And, I’ll admit, it’s awkward. I try to also make their race play a role in their life somehow, so it’s not forgotten that, hey, this is a PoC, not a white person. Or at least make jokes about it or such to try to make it not so awkward, but still say “these people are PoC.”
For example, something I wrote for my second book to my series (because the hardest thing I’m finding about writing a second book is having to sort of reintroduce characters, as well as their appearances. So I wrote this scene to illustrate how two of my Black leads differ in tones and such).
Sunny brought our faces together and snapped a picture. When she showed me it, I laughed. Both of our faces looked sweaty with our hair in our face. What made the picture was funny was that Sunny was trying to take a serious one. She didn’t notice that I had my tongue sticking out. But in the dark, you could barely see my features: just my green eyes and my pink tongue poking out of my mouth.
“I hate you,” Sunny said, pressing buttons on her camera and then pointing it at me. “I need to put the flash on ‘cause of your Black ass.”
“Racist,” I said, reaching for the camera as Sunny snapped a picture.
“How am I racist when I’m Black too?” Sunny laughed, keeping the camera away from me.
“You’re only half.”
“I’m still Black.”
“Just barely. Oh, what did the trainer say about your ankle?”
Anyway, here I have these two girls, joking about their races to sort of show that my MC is a dark skinned Black girl, while Sunny, who is half Black, would be lighter. In a way, it’s to say “don’t cast no biracial Zoe Saldana/Halle Berry types for Kyla (my MC) because she is DARK DARK DARK DARK DARK.” They can do that with Sunny because she’s actually biracial and would be light skinned like them, but my main character IS NOT. Having to do that is frustrating as a writer, but I know if I didn’t, many of my characters would be read as white.
Re: this bit though: “blatantly describing characters as POC makes it harder to take a step forward,” I’m not sure if I wholeheartedly agree. As I mentioned, it IS awkward at times trying to go out of the way to say “this character is this” but sometimes, you NEED that if you want to be inclusive. If you are writing a story with an all Black cast or all White cast or all Asian cast, it’s easier to not rely on that (ie, how every character in an anime is Japanese unless stated otherwise; Japanese writers don’t have to go out of their way to say “this character is this race” because due to the entire cast, for the most part, being Japanese, it’s not needed).
But if you want a story like, well, mine, where I have Asians, Black people, Latin@s, etc, you do NEED those descriptions so a reader can identify who is like them. If you want a story that shows people of many different races and ethnicity interacting together, you need to identify who is what race. I think it’s seen as frustrating because since we are so used to reading (and even writing) literature with all white characters, it’s never had to be done. So now that we have modern writers who want to include a plethora of races, we have to take note of the race.
I don’t think it’s “holding us back,” but just reminding us to remember that other people’s races matter. I think the reason it looks like it’s “holding us back” is because we use it ONLY for PoC. And I admit (as I’m guilty of this), knowing that a barely described character will be coded as white makes it easier for me to say “this girl with a blonde pixie cut walked by” or something, and then move on with the plot. But I think what we SHOULD start doing is also pointing out the whiteness of a character. Ie, note how a character is white. The same way that when we introduce, let’s say, a black character, we may note their skin, do the same with white characters. Because then, it simply becomes a matter of making sure every character is being described and recognized by their race, instead of it being “only PoC’s races are brought up.” Because the latter makes PoC the “others” instead of a potential default. Which is the problem.
I hope this made sense….
EDIT: And no, this was not a dumb thing to say