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Starbucks Skin Scale
The various flavors of humanity.
"Her lips are devil red And her skin's the color of mocha She will wear you out Livin' la vida loca"
— La Vida Loca, Ricky Martin
Black characters in fiction are often described as having a skin color that looks like some kind of coffee beverage. This is especially likely if the character in question is of mixed race or if they are meant to be attractive. Sometimes those two concepts will be mixed together
When describing the skin of a black person, just calling someone "black" is Beige Prose
, it won't stick in the mind, and also incredibly inaccurate. The colors of "black" skin vary more - even more widely than the colors of "white" skin. You may find comparisons of "honey" or "caramel" for the range of golden-browns with the use of "chocolate" or "mocha" for darker shades. "White" skin is most often compared to "cream" or "milk," with "peaches and cream" a fairly common term to refer to a fair complexion with pinkish undertones, alongside non-food descriptors such as "ivory" and "alabaster." You may also encounter mixed-race characters who have "some cream in their coffee". Cafe au lait
is another favorite, which resembles the look of coffee and milk.
This trope most often occurs in literature, where the audience can't see the character's skin color, but it is occasionally used in visual media like movies or theater when one character describes a second character.
Please note that this trope has several Unfortunate Implications
, and that likening a person's skin tone to food in Real Life
can be considered ethnocentrism and dehumanizing.
- Cuban sugar sellers used to advertise the colors of their various sugars in relation to pictures of women with analogous skin tones. They ranged all the way from "wild" (dark brown) to "refined" (lily white), with every color in between.
- Redd Foxx, in one of his stand-up routines, said that the colors of black people could range from "black walnut, burnt almond, chocolate, chocolate mocha, pecan, vanilla, yellow, mellow, light, bright, and damn near white".
- While not specifically referencing coffee, Wanda Sykes did use this in a comedy routine. She mentioned how the "random screenings" at airports weren't really random, mentioning that they had a Benjamin Moore paint chart at the gate, and if you were darker than "khaki," you were getting screened.
- This article parodies the trope.
- The first issue of The Spirit revival featured a dark skinned woman named Ginger Coffee.
- In Project Tatterdemalion, when Yoruichi is told that they can never be sure whether they got all the Hollow DNA out of the infected, the paling of her skin is compared to the swirling of cream into coffee.
- In the Daredevil movie, an old lady sitting next to Bullseye on a plane rambles on about her daughter in law eloping with "this semi-colored fellow from London. What's the word for that? Mulatto. Let's just say he had a little cream in his coffee."
- The French film Metisse (derived from mixticius, meaning mixed, compare the Spainish and Portugese term Mestizo) was called Cafe Au Lait in the US as a Double Meaning Title reference to the mixed race characters, mix of the characters races and the french style coffees they all drank.
- Used in Bringing Down the House when Peter's friend Howie sees Charlene for the first time. "Swing it, you cocoa goddess..."
- The first-person teenaged protagonist of Summer of My German Soldier describes her family's maid, Ruth, as having skin "the color of hot chocolate before the marshamallow bleeds in."
- Shaunee Cole from The House of Night is described as having "Cafe au Lait" skin a couple of times.
- The novels of E. Lynn Harris describe characters like this.
- Used in Everworld when describing people in a city as being "from latte to espresso"- logical, since one of the characters actually works at a Starbucks.
- Tamora Pierce does it more than once. In the Circle of Magic universe, Briar and Lark have "honey brown" skin and Daja and Frostpine have "dark chocolate" skin. The twins from Cold Fire are also described as having honey-brown skin.
- Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson has a "dark coffee" girl and a "caramel" guy (with "hot-fudge eyes," no less).
- In The Great Gilly Hopkins, the title character's teacher is "tea-colored."
- Artemis Fowl heroine Holly Short is variously described as having "nut-brown" or "coffee" coloured skin. The Artemis Fowl Files, a companion book, says her whole species is brown-skinned, but only she gets the fancy adjectives.
- Half-black, half-Japanese Hiro in Snow Crash has "cappucino" skin.
- In Doc Sidhe by Aaron Allston, Ish (a princess of a South American tribe) is described as having 'coffee-with-cream' skin.
- Jasper Peavey in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is described as having 'coffee-with-cream' skin.
- In The Princes of the Air by John M. Ford there's a scene where the protagonist and a woman he's interested in are having coffee together, and it's noted in passing that her skin tone matches the coffee-with-cream they're drinking.
- In his Callahans Crosstime Saloon series Spider Robinson references and expands upon the concept with the following speech, delivered by a drunken Irish Sidhe:
- “I traveled the world in me youth, and I noticed yez/mocha, mahogany, chestnut and cocoa/ochre and umber and amber and gold/coffee with cream, coffee with milk, coffee with nothin’ but Tullamore Dew/amber and anatase, russet and chocolate, both the siennas, the burnt and the raw/hazel and sepia, several more/an’ never a black man or woman I saw.”
- When anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown first meets the Haitian title character in the ethnography Mama Lola: A Voudou Priestess in Brooklyn, she describes her skin as having the color of coffee ice cream.
- In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it viewpoint character description characteristic of Neil Gaiman, Shadow of American Gods is described as having a cream-and-coffee complexion. Whether that means he's Not Too Black on his mother's side, Not Too White on his father's side, or even the less-likely-in-context "dark cream in some places, light coffee in others" has been hotly contested amongst fans.
- Slightly confusingly for people used to this trope, Enid Blyton generally used this kind of language to describe tanned white people.
- Appears in Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove—as part of an Incredibly Lame Pun, as it's used to describe a black military officer called Coffey.
- Hazel and her mother from The Heroes of Olympus are both described as having " skin like a roasted coffee bean,"
- Found in a lot of stories by Walter Mosley
- Found in The Mortal Instruments, where for example the biracial character Maia is introduced as having "honeyed" skin. Author Cassandra Clare discussed her choices in describing skin tones in a blog post, where she admitted that she risked coming off as ethnocentric due to not giving similar descriptions to Caucasian characters.
- Hunter from Neverwhere has caramel skin. And caramel eyes. And a caramel laugh. The word is repeated a lot in descriptions of her.
- Angel once described Jasmine as "mocha".
- In one episode of Will and Grace, when Grace is about to dump a man played by Gregory Hines, Will wonders why, since not too long before, Grace was pouring milk in her cappuccino to show him what pretty colors their kids would be.
- The Human Color Wheel from Community. It goes from Seal to Seal's teeth!
- Once On This Island makes reference to a half-islander, half-French boy - "a beautiful child the pale color of coffee mixed with cream".
- Hair and the movie based on it contains the song "Black Boys," which while not specifically going directly for the "coffee" comparison uses quite a few food-related metaphors: "Chocolate-flavored love," "licorice lips like candy," and "keep my cocoa handy" among others. The counterpart song "White Boys" limits this to a single reference to milk.
- Referenced in Real Life by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in his "Chocolate City" speeches and comments. He was simply referencing an old Parliament-Funkadelic song about D.C., but the Unfortunate Implications of the comment became an Epic Fail that nearly cost him his re-election. His back-pedaling clarification that meant "chocolate with milk" was unintentionally hilarious, however.
- In Stephen Colbert's 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, he describes Washington, DC., as "the chocolate city with a marshmallow center." ("And a graham-cracker crust of corruption... it's a Mallomar, basically.") Two years later, the city's marshmallow center has received its own chocolate center.
- This is very common in Brazilian culture, where the very large mixed-race population means that a kind of shorthand is more or less necessary.
- In his memoir, Tim Gunn mentions once working for someone who commented, offhand, that what they really needed for their front desk was a "cafe au lait." It took him a few minutes to figure out that the idiot was talking about a person, not a coffee machine.