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The Legacy of the Brown Paper Bag

Published: Friday, September 16, 2005

Updated: Saturday, August 9, 2008 23:08

What if dark-skinned and light-skinned people really weren't able to associate without facing some kind of ridicule? What if to determine whether you were socially acceptable, you had to be either lighter than or the same color as a brown paper bag? This notion existed in the early days of Howard University, and with much social transformation, it has--in theory--been eradicated.

The roots of the "brown paper bag test" date back to slave days.

According to an article written by Audrey Elisa Kerr, an associate English professor at Southern Connecticut State University, light-skinned slaves-particularly women-were considered "gentler, kinder, more handsome, smarter, and more delicate" than darker-skinned slaves.

Washington, D.C., once played a large role in the dark-skin/light-skin game. Because slavery did not have such an economic impact in the District, many free blacks preferred to reside in the area. In the mid-19th century, barbershops began accommodating only light-skinned black men.

Not only was race a factor, but skin tone became one. Churches, schools and various organizations utilized the paper bag test for social verification. There were also multitudes of brown bag parties, clubs, and social circles.

With colorism having such strong bearing in the nation's capital, Howard has been accused of utilizing the brown paper bag test.

Inclusion in various organizations sometimes depended on skin tone as well.

Dr. Jennifer Jordan, an African-American literature professor at Howard, doesn't believe much has changed in the overall scope of the paper bag theory.

"Look at the rappers and their music videos," Jordan said. "[Colorism] exists everywhere."

Paper bag tests may not be literal, but they are symbolic in the history of African Americans and are even subliminal according to Nadine Bascombe, a Howard alum.

"Even though there are still a few examples and comments made that are reflective of a subconscious obsession with complexion," Bascombe said, "the progress is real and more apparent compared to the Howard in past years."

Jermaine Small, another Howard alum, believes that throughout the years the university has changed its outlook on color.

"Howard is now built on accepting people who have attributes to bring to the university," Small said.

A study in Social Psychology Quarterly indicates, however, that even with the newfound acceptance of multi-hues, black college students "still exhibit a preference for lighter skin."

Some Howard students still deal with color issues, and Daina Wilkins, a transfer student from George Mason University, has seen the effects.

"Growing up used to worry me a little bit, being lighter or darker than people," Wilkins said. "Darker-skinned friends would get offended when lighter-skinned friends would bring it up."

Some students don't feel that color issues are as important on Howard's campus anymore, as Byron Stewart, the HUSA student body president said.

"I think there are more problems that students deal with, not including the color of our skin," Stewart said. He believes that instead of finding differences in each other, students should look at their similarities and come together to resolve issues.

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