It’s an age-old writers’ question: What do I do about clichés and well-worn tropes? This month, we’ve asked authors about the clichés and tropes they find themselves falling back on, and how they fix, invert, or embrace them. Today, Mitali Perkins, author and editor of , discusses the problem of using food as a descriptor:
CLICHÉ: Using food to describe a character’s skin color or race
Have you noticed how writers sometimes describe the physical appearances of non-white characters? A default strategy is to use food-related metaphors and similes. Does your Chinese character have almond-shaped eyes? Does your Nigerian love interest have skin like dark chocolate or espresso? If so, you may have fallen into the dreaded “Foreigner as Food” trope. (If all your characters are white, you’ve probably managed to avoid this particular trap, but consider asking if your setting and plot truly demands that sort of cast—but wait, that’s not my beef here. Even though my skin is the color of a well-done burger.)
I have no idea why we default to food when we describe the skin, eyes, and hair of people who aren’t white. And believe me, white writers are not the only ones who do this without thinking. It affects all of us who grew up reading fiction mostly featuring white characters. Maybe we have good subconscious intentions. The edible stuff we use to describe nonwhite appearances typically is familiar and tasty—maybe we’re trying to help our readers feel closer to marginalized characters. Now they are neither strange nor foreign! They are yummy!