Brown Paper Bag Test

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Brown paper bag represents an individual darker than this bag was denied privileges
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Brown Paper Bag Test was a discriminatory act that was based on skin color and acceptance. The brown paper bag was used as a measurement to determine whether or not an individual could receive access to certain privileges; individuals were given preference if having a skin tone lighter than a brown paper bag.[1] The test used to take place in the 20th century in many social institutions such as African-American sororities, fraternities, and churches.[2] In addition, Brown Paper Bags were used in multi-racial social events, at which only individuals with complexions at least as light as the color of a brown paper bag were admitted. The term also refers to larger issues of class and social stratification within the African-American population. This test resulted from colorism, discrimination based on skin tone.

Color discrimination[edit]

The Future of the Race by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The association of privilege in the African-American community with skin tone has been of long standing. In part, it relates to the tension of a slave society, in which race was used as an indicator of slave caste. Mixed-race children of white fathers were sometimes given privileges, ranging from more desirable work, apprenticeships or formal education, allocation of property, or even freedom. African Americans "contributed to colorism because they have benefited from the privilege of having a skin color closer to that of Whites and have embraced the notion that privilege comes with having light skin in America".[3] Free people of color were afforded certain social and economic advantages over darker-skinned people of color, even while suffering discrimination. According to Gordon, "light-skinned blacks formed exclusive clubs" after slavery was abolished in the United States.[4] Some clubs were called "Blue Vein Societies", suggesting that if an individual's skin was light enough to show the blue cast of veins, they had more European ancestry (and, therefore, higher social standing.)[4] Such discrimination resulted in resentment among African Americans with darker complexions. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his book The Future of the Race (1996), the practice of the brown paper bag test may have originated in New Orleans, LA, where there was a substantial third class of free people of color dating from the French colonial era.[5] The test was related to ideas of beauty, in which some people felt that lighter skin and more European features, in general, were more attractive.

From 1900 until about 1950, "paper bag parties" are said to have taken place in neighborhoods of major American cities with a high concentration of African Americans. Many churches, fraternities and nightclubs used the "brown paper bag" principle as a test for entrance. People at these organizations would take a brown paper bag and hold it against a person's skin. If a person was lighter or the same color as the bag, he or she was admitted. People whose skin was not lighter than a brown paper bag were denied entry.[6]

There is, too, a curious color dynamic that sadly persists in our culture. In fact, New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party — usually at a gathering in a home — where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance. The brown bag criterion survives as a metaphor for how the black cultural elite quite literally establishes caste along color lines within black life. On my many trips to New Orleans, whether to lecture at one of its universities or colleges, to preach from one of its pulpits, or to speak at an empowerment seminar during the annual Essence Music Festival, I have observed color politics at work among black folk. The cruel color code has to be defeated by our love for one another. —Michael Eric Dyson, excerpt from Come Hell or High Water.[7]

Historically black colleges and universities used the brown paper bag test as an admission for an enrollment critique.[8] A person's skin tone could affect whether they were admitted to a top school. For instance, Audrey Elisa Kerr refers to colleges requiring applicants to send personal photos.[9] Kerr mentioned how this practice took place at a popular HBCU, Howard University.[9] Dr. Arnold told Kerr about a story he heard when it came to young women at Howard. Dr. Arnold mentioned he heard colorism was a factor when it came to admission to Howard.[9] Discrimination was also practiced by fraternities and sororities, whose members self-selected others like themselves, reflecting partial European ancestry.[10] Multi-racial people who had been free before the American Civil War tried to attempt to distinguish themselves from the mass of freedmen after the war, who appeared to be mostly of African descent and had been confined to slavery.

Colorism through the centuries[edit]

In the unions formed between African men and white women, their children were born into freedom, because of their mothers' skin tone.[11] The law was established in Virginia and other colonies in the 17th century established that children's status would be determined by that of their mothers, rather than by their father's, as was the case under English common law.[11] Families of free people of color were descended from white women. They became well-established, with descendants moving to frontier regions of Virginia, North Carolina and west as areas opened up. Some prominent Americans have been descended from these early free families, for instance, Ralph Bunche, who served as ambassador to the United Nations.[12]

As early as the 18th century, travelers remarked on the variety of color and features seen in slaves in Virginia, as European ancestry was obvious. Light-skinned slaves, some of whom were descendants of masters and their sons, were sometimes given better treatment on plantations, with domestic jobs inside the master’s house, including as companions or maids to his legal children.[13] Some of them were educated or at least allowed to learn to read. Sometimes the master might have arranged for an apprenticeship for a mulatto son and freed him upon its completion, especially in the first two decades after the American Revolution, when numerous slaves were freed in the Upper South. In the Upper South, from the Revolution to 1810, the percentage of people of color who were free increased from 1 to more than 10 percent. By 1810, 75% of blacks in Delaware were free.[14]

Newly imported Africans and African Americans with less visible European ancestry were used in hard field labor; abuse was more frequent in the fields. As tensions about slave uprisings rose in the 19th century, slave states imposed more restrictions, including prohibitions on educating slaves and on slaves' movements. The slaves could be punished for trying to learn to read and write.

In Louisiana especially, Creoles of color had long formed a third class during the years of slavery. They had achieved a high level of literacy and sophistication under the French and Spanish rule, becoming educated, taking the names of white fathers or lovers, and often receiving property from the white men involved with their families. Many became artisans, property owners and sometimes slaveholders themselves. Unlike in the Upper South, where free African Americans varied widely in appearance, free people of color in New Orleans and the Deep South tended to be light-skinned due to generations of intermarriage with people of European ancestry. After the United States made the Louisiana Purchase, more Americans settled in New Orleans, bringing with them their binary approach to society, in which each person was classified only as black or white. They began to curtail the privileges of Creoles of color.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steward, Bernadetta. "Art Exhibition Exposes Racism". Texas Communist. Retrieved 16 October 2015. 
  2. ^ Pilgram, David. "Brown Paper Bag Test". Ferris State University. Ferris State University. Retrieved 16 October 2015. 
  3. ^ "African Americans Still Victims of Colorism". Racism Review. Wordpress. Retrieved 20 November 2015. 
  4. ^ a b "Skin-Deep Discrimination". ABC News. ABC News. Retrieved 23 October 2015. 
  5. ^ Maxwell, Bill. "The paper bag test". St. Petersburg Times. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 23 October 2015. 
  6. ^ "Did Hurricane Katrina reveal a historic reality?" Excerpt from Michael Eric Dyson's (2006) Come Hell or High Water
  7. ^ Dyson, Michael Eric (2007). Come hell or high water : Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster (Pbk. ed.). New York: Basic Civitas. ISBN 978-0465017720. 
  8. ^ Carter, Jarrett. "Bringing Back the Brown Paper Bag Test to HBCUs". Hoff Post Black Voices. Huffington Post. Retrieved 29 October 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c Kerri, Audrey Elisa (2006). The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism, and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, Part 3. University of Tennessee Press. p. 93. 
  10. ^ "Paper Bag Test: Letter From 1928 Addresses Black Fraternity And Sorority Colorism At Howard University". watchtheyard. WatchTheYard. Retrieved 31 October 2015. 
  11. ^ a b Williams, Heather. "How Slavery Affected African American Families". National Humanities Center. National Humanities Center. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  12. ^ [1] Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 2005, accessed 15 Feb 2008
  13. ^ "Household Slavery". boundless. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  14. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994 Pbk, pp.78 and 81
  15. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994 Pbk, p. 83

Russell, Kathy; Wilson, Midge; Hall, Ronald (1993-10-01). The Color Complex. New York: Anchor. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-385-47161-9. 

Williams, Lena (1992-11-22). "The Many Shades of Bigotry". New York Times. 

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