The Back Story: How The Brown Paper Bag Carried “The Color Complex” From Slavery Forward

2 Posted by - April 22, 2018 - LATEST POSTS

An actual test, along with the so-called ruler test in common use in the the early 1900s among upper class American societies and families to determine if a Black person was sufficiently white to gain admittance or acceptance. If your skin was darker than a brown paper bag, you did not merit inclusion. Thousands of Black institutions including the nation’s most eminent Black fraternity — Phi Alpha Phi, Howard Univiersity, and numerous church and civic groups all practiced this discriminiation. The practice has 19th Century antecedants with the Blue Blood Society and has not totally died out.

Origin of Colorism

How did colorism surface? In the United States’ colorism has roots in . That’s because slave-owners typically gave preferential treatment to slaves with fairer complexions. While dark-skinned slaves toiled outdoors in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors completing domestic tasks that were far less grueling. Why the discrepancy? Slave-owners were partial to light-skinned slaves because they were often family members. Slave-owners frequently engaged in sexual intercourse with slave women, and light-skinned offspring were the telltale signs of these unions. While slave-owners did not officially recognize their mixed-race children as blood, they gave them privileges that dark-skinned slaves did not enjoy. Accordingly, light skin came to be viewed as an asset among the slave community.

Enduring Legacy

After slavery ended in the U.S., colorism didn’t disappear. In black America, those with light-skin received employment opportunities off limits to darker-skinned African Americans. This is why upper-class families in black society were largely light-skinned. Soon light skin and privilege were considered one in the same in the black community, with light skin being the sole criterion for acceptance into the black aristocracy. Upper crust blacks routinely administered the brown paper bag test to determine if fellow blacks were light enough to socialize with.

Colorism didn’t just involve blacks discriminating against other blacks. Job advertisements from the mid-20th century reveal that African-Americans with light skin clearly believed their coloring would make them more palatable as job candidates. Writer Brent Staples discovered this while searching the archives of newspapers near the Pennsylvania town where he grew up. He noticed that in the 1940s, black job seekers often identified themselves as light-skinned.

Zora Neal Hurston was the first well known writer to air this strange practice in a public. The practice is now nearly universally condemned (at least in public) as being an example of “colorism”. Particularly cogent modern day critiques can be found in Kathy Russell’s “The Color Complex”, Tony Morrion’s “The Bluest Eye” (an Ophrey Book Club choice) and Marita Golden’s “Don’t Play in the Sun.” The best known send-up of the pactice, however, is Spike Lee’s scathing and hilarious 1988 movie, “School Daze.”



  • […] minorities, sometimes thought to be unable to pass, have historically availed themselves of the advantages of lighter skin color), sometimes policies favorable to minorities are more likely to advance if they can be enacted or […]

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  • Michael Presley April 23, 2018 - 9:49 am Reply

    It’s Sad and Shameful that Colorism is alive and well in the Black Race there are a lot of Black people who are very Color Struck against Dark Skinned Black people and especially don’t want any Dark Skinned Black Children. ☻

  • Khia Harrison October 31, 2018 - 9:51 pm Reply

    Alpha Phi Alpha is the fraternity

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