The “Paper Bag Test” is no longer in use, though its legacy remains in most black American descendants of slaves’ psyche. Though colorism has touched many parts of the world… Have you ever thought about which emoji hand color? Nah?✌🏿
The “Paper Bag Test” distinguished those who were granted more privileges and entry (lighter than the paper bag in skin tone) and those who were denied privilege and entry. It’s been used in many different social institutions within the black community. For more on the historical context: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Paper_Bag_Test
In a way, it’s a bit more straightforward than some other societies touched by colonialism where there are 20+ categories of skin tone that all convey a different set of privileges. It is also incredibly narrow and only slightly more “liberal” than the “one drop rule.”
Growing up, I saw this distinction play out (much in my own head and my own insecurities) in my own family. It is said that one great-grandparent (very fair skin) never fully accepted my grandparents’ spouse (my complexion) because of “what could have been.” I grew up always aware that these two grandparents were considered “the darkest of their siblings” though “dark” in their respective families was many, many shades apart.
When you grow up in the light vs dark mindset, it’s hard to not see things through that lens. As the “darker” brother, I always felt inferior though I have no proof that I was ever treated less fairly. I remember being taken aback when I first heard in a dating context “No, I actually prefer darker skinned men.” It was like “oh, that’s a thing? That’s different.” I was so used to a set of perceptions of stereotypes that it was hard for me to even see “beyond my hue of black.” But that’s how social conditioning can often work. At some point you don’t realize how much of it is confirmation bias versus actual bias.
So on top of being just black, you also become aware of your skin tone and the set of privileges that come with it. For instance, I don’t feel any constraints around masculinity that are often imposed on the fairer skinned. In discussions with people from other countries with non-homogenous populations, it’s often said this much thinking about race is exhausting. And I agree. But it is still the reality and part of the black American experience. There are certain truths to the early achievement of black Americans and the hue so many of them shared or if you think of the trailblazers that broke color lines (not in sports).
And I play into this still, teasing light brights though never putting down those who are darker skinned. It’s all part of a post-slavery experience that is still so damn hard to shake. I like that my friends call me out when I slip into these moments, but it’s going to take some more time to completely undo.
I remember a Nordic friend telling me about a poignant childhood moment for her. On the playground she was told her brown hair wasn’t “princess hair” (because it wasn’t blonde) and that memory has still lasted with her. It’s fascinating to know what layered systems we are working within and maybe not sharing with others.
I’d love to hear about your experience with colorism in your community.
Part of a 28-day series of reflections, stories and feelings for Black History Month 2017. Read all parts (here).