The Pain And Peril Of The Paper Bag Test

It is one of history’s simplest and weirdest tools of intra-racial discrimination. It is little talked about outside of the Black community. And as weird and simple as it is, this largely-unknown tool is a cruel and crucial aspect of colorism within African-American culture. 

That tool of distinction among African Americans is known as the “brown paper bag test”. The process: one person holds a brown paper bag to another person’s skin and, if said person’s skin is darker then the bag, admission into various social and academic organizations and institutions is automatically denied. If someone’s skin complexion is the same as the bag or lighter, a door to the Black community’s best opportunities awaits. 

The root of this kind of internalized racism is largely unknown for lack of hard evidence, butmany theorize that the “paper bag test” grew out of New Orleans during France’s reign over the region (1699-1763, 1763-1803). [2] Researchers lean towards New Orleans as the birthplace because the city was home to one of the largest, most powerful, and free Black communities in the United States during the era of slavery. This, in turn, was the case because the French and Spanish colonies held different attitudes towards their relationships with slaves, free blacks, and mixed race groups. 

During this time, the French had instituted rules known as the ‘Code Noir’. These rules were extremely liberal in comparison to the laws and social norms of America’s 13 Original Colonies. The Code Noir included among its rules, “If a free, unmarried man should have relations with a slave owned by him, he should then be married to the slave concubine, thus freeing her and any resulting child from slavery”. It also made it illegal to break up slave marriages and families. These rules led to New Orleans later having the highest population of free Blacks than any otherslaves state, reaching as high as 13.2% in 1830. 

With racial mixing, however, came racial labels. This is where we see the emergence of the term “Creole” for people who had Native American, Black, and French ancestry. Creole people became their own class, separate from enslaved Africans and from whites slaveowners. The French worried less about a rigid, binary racial caste system than America did. After the Louisiana Purchase and the United States’ assumption of ownership over the area, the US insisted that anyone with African blood be treated more aggressively.

The One Drop Rule soon governed everything. This stated that anyone with any “Negro blood” to be considered a negro, carrying with that all the negative aspects of Black life in a white racist society. There was even an established naming system which further divided the Black community from mere labels into hierarchical social classes. Examples include octaaroon for those being 1/8th Black, and hexadecaroon for being 1/16th Black. This put people into an established system that not only separated very fair skinned mixed racial people from “pure” whites, it also separated them from Blacks who had two parents of African descent. 

In New Orleans, and reaching as far as Washington DC and Boston (both which had large, established Black communities as the result of ending slavery before the South) a caste system rose within their respective Black populations. Those who were more fair-skinned and mixed-race began to form their own communities and culture within the larger Black community. And so there was a question as to how these lighter-skinned castes would keep out those who are not adequately fair-skinned. Internalized racism and nascent colorism birthed the answer, giving us the brown paper bag test.

Actual application of the paper bag test was simple. A fictional person named Mary decides to hold a house party and invite her good friends over, who can in turn invite their friends. Someone at the door would greet the attendees with a brown paper bag, holding it up to the skin of the guests. Those that were lighter than the bag were allowed entry; those darker than the bag were denied. These groups began to call themselves the Blue Vein Societies. They were called this because its participants were fair skinned enough that a person could see the blueish color of their veins.

From 1900 to 1950 the practice was in use by fraternities and sororities that made up the National Pan-Hellenic Council. This council is made up of all the fraternal organizations that were created for and by African Americans, most of which began on the campus of Howard University during this period. 

Signs of this kind of colorism can be found in a 1928 article for Howard University’s paper, in a line from student Edward H. Taylor in the school’s newspaper. This article describes the atmosphere among the Black student population at the time. Taylor is quoted as saying, “The light-skinned students are sought after by the fraternities and sororities, particularly the latter, as members and the dark ones passed by. The darker brown students then form their own cliques while the blacks are left in the cold.”

The brown paper bag test (or some form of it) was used in nightclubs, admissions into private HBCU’s, social groups, neighborhoods, and churches, and it helped create division among the Black folks which still has branches that exist today. 

We still deal with modern day version of brown paper bag tests. In media we get Janet Hubert’s dark skin being replaced with a lighter skinned actress; X-Men filmmakers casting Storm with light-skinned actresses; dark-skinned athletes like Serena Willams being called anything but a woman. Even reality TV seems to have fights that are either down and dirty in the South (Real Housewives of Atlanta) by darker skinned women, or fights that relatively reserved and tame in attempts to uphold skin color’s ties to class (Housewives of the Potomac). Even in our most cherished of music inventions, Hip Hop uses it when the blond haired, fair skinned video vixen is the prime sexual target for rappers from Lil Wayne in his lyrics, to Fetty Wap in his 679 video. We don’t need to see the bag to know how it echoes in modern Black life and Black media. 

This little tool known as the brown paper bag test when exposes a history of colorism that has infiltrated the African American community for a century. And this internalized value placed on skin-tone, this attempt to place oneself in proximity to whiteness, apparently has little sign of dying. Sadly, we just see it evolve into new forms, wherever Black folks dare to exist freely.  


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