CommunityPam's House Blend

The brown paper bag test is alive and well

“They said, if you was white, you'd be alright, If you was brown, stick around, But as you is black, oh brother, Get back, get back, get back.”

— A 1947 blues song, “Black, Brown, and White,” written by Big Bill Broonzy.

Detroit DJ cancels party for 'light-skinned' black women. This whole melanin thing for black Americans is quite complicated, it's also quite pathological as Colorism, another third rail subtopic when it comes to race, rears its ugly head from time to time. In this case, the blowback was immediate.

A local DJ and party promoter retreated Thursday from a plan to sponsor a bash that would let “light-skinned” black women into a downtown club for free.

But the “Light Skin Libra Birthday Bash” at Club APT on Woodward Avenue turned out to be a bashing — of promoter Ulysses “DJ Lish” Barnes after word of the unusual party spread on the Internet.

“I made a mistake,” Barnes said. “I didn't think there would be a backlash.”

Barnes, who said he's been a party promoter for six years, canceled the event.

Barnes, btw, describes himself as dark-skinned, and didn't think his party planning was offensive in any way, stating he planned to have a 'Sexy Chocolate' party the following week, and after that a “Sexy Caramel” fete.

I'm still trying to figure out how he planned to decide who got in the front door for free. Did he plan to have a brown paper bag ready to do “the test”? More below the fold.

“I had a good conversion with him and he understood,” said Pearl Jr., founder of the Black Women's Movement in Los Angeles and the author of the book “Black Women Need Love, Too.”

“Ignorance can't always be an excuse,” she said. “Colorism is real in the black community. It's especially very degrading to dark-skinned black women.”

The party's discriminating tone harkens to the day of the “brown paper bag test,” which compared the complexions of blacks to a brown grocery bag before they could be admitted to social clubs and affairs, said Pearl Jr.

My mom had first-hand experience with the brown paper bag nonsense, something I blogged about in my post, “Skin and the color of money.”

Her exposure to the “test” occurred in the 1950s, while living in Brooklyn, NY, she was dating a young gentleman, who was brown-skinned. She was invited to a party in the neighborhood and brought her friend to the dance. At the door, the host leaned in to my mother and said that he could not be admitted with her. She was upset and asked to step inside to discuss the matter. The host was uncomfortable that my mom didn't get the “secret signal”, but brought her in (while he waited outside), and was told point blank “He doesn't pass the brown paper bag test.” He was too dark, and there was to be none of that going on at this party.

Generally, human beings follow natural inclinations to categorize and organize things, including people. The assignment of other humans into easy visual cubbyholes by those in the communities of color as well as the dominant culture makes it infinitely easier to give political and economic power to (or withhold it from) whole classes of people.  It all spirals down into a pitiful morass of bigotry and insane systems of repression that are also accepted and perpetuated within those populations deemed racially “inferior.” That it is exacerbated by the reinforcement of light skin as the epitome of beauty is particularly stinging for dark-skinned women — all over the world, I might add.

Check out the report Pigmentation and Empire: The Emerging Skin-Whitening Industry for an eye-opening look at the extremes some  will go to in order to lighten their skin — often with disastrous results.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding