The Paper Bag Test: Colorism Within the Black Community

“This disrupter of seasons was a new girl in school named Maureen Peal. A high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back. She was rich, at least by our standards, as rich as the richest of white girls, swaddled in comfort and care. The quality of her clothes threatened to derange Frieda and me.” – Claudia MacTeer[1]

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 1.24.52 PM.png1931 AKA Howard University. Via: http://nphcseenxheard.tumblr.com/page/2

Although black beauty is being celebrated more and more, colorism still finds a way to rear its ugly head. In short, colorism or skin color based discrimination that privileges lighter skinned black people over darker skinned black people. Previously, light skinned black people were allowed more systematic privileges such as “…access to more skilled work, access to education, and sometimes freedom from slavery…”[2] Not only did colorism exclude darker skinned people, the black community internalized these ideals as well, consequently perpetuating that idea that beauty is synonymous to one’s proximity to whiteness, therefore upholding white supremacy.

For example, there is this joke that if you’re an AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha), you’re probably high maintenance and light skinned. Although this is just a stereotype, historically, the paper bag test was implemented at many HBCUs for their admissions process as well as within sororities and fraternities.[3] The paper bag test essentially means that if you’re lighter than a paper bag, then you are in. If you’re darker, then you’re out. Although historically, colorism has excluded darker skinned people from “elite controlled organizations” and other opportunities, Meeta Rani Jha cites that “skin-color stratification is very much a current social problem.”[4]

In 2014, the casting call for Straight Outta Compton was leaked on social media and many were outraged. The document separated women from “A” to “D” based on skin tone and hair texture. A Girls were “the hottest of the hottest” with “real hair – no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies.” Whereas “D” were “African American girls” that were “poor, not in good shape” and had “medium to dark skin tones.”[5] This casting call explicitly stated that dark skinned girls would be portrayed as undesirable and from a lower class.

Although HBCUs have long since ditched the practice of the paper bag test, colorism has yet to be eradicated from the black community.

[1] Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, New York: Knopf, 1993, 63.

[2] Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body, (New York, NY : Routledge, 2016), 44.

[3] Jarrett L. Carter, “Bringing Back the Brown Paper Bag Test to HBCUs,” The Huffington Post. April 11, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jarrett-l-carter/bringing-back-the-brown-p_b_3059700.html.

[4] Jha, 44 – 45.

[5] Danielle Cadet, The ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Casting Call Is So Offensive It Will Make Your Jaw Drop, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/17/straight-out-of-compton-casting-call_n_5597010.html/.

 

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