Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Is the brown bag test real or is it an urban legend?
--Jeremy Village, Chicago, Illinois
I am sad to report that the brown paper bag test was real. It was an example of colorism-discrimination based on skin color.
In his 1996 book The Future of the Race, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the prominent Harvard historian, described his introduction to this practice as an undergraduate student at Yale in the late 1960s. According to Gates, "Some of the brothers who came from New Orleans held a bag party. As a classmate explained it to me, a bag party was a New Orleans custom wherein a brown paper bag was stuck on the door. Anyone darker than the bag was denied entrance. That was one cultural legacy that would be put to rest in a hurry-we all made sure of that. But in a manner of speaking, it was replaced by an opposite test whereby those who were deemed "not black enough' ideologically were to be shunned. I was not sure this was an improvement."
Imagine: These were students at one of the nation's flagship universities. They were African Americans at an institution with relatively few students of color. While there, they were scrutinized, doubted, and marginalized. And, yet, a fraction of the group decided to practice their own brand of bigotry-deny entry (friendship) to any black person darker than a standard brown paper bag. Why exclude their darker brothers? Because they, meaning those with lighter skin, not only had a fetish for white skin and Eurocentric features, but they had internalized the racist notion that light skin is a marker of intellectual, cultural, social, and personal superiority-over and above darker people.
Why use the bag as a barometer? Because it was believed to be midway between white and black hues.
In her 2006 book, The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, D.C., Audrey Elisa Kerr, a professor of African-American literature, documents reports that the brown paper bag test was used by African-American fraternities, sororities, churches and social clubs throughout the 20th century. Exclusion is often ugly, but there seems to be something especially pernicious about African American churches not allowing dark-skinned African Americans as members-this is reminiscent of white churches forbidding African Americans, of all hues, from membership.
Spike Lee's movie School Daze (1988) is often credited with creating a national dialogue about colorism in African American communities. In this movie, set at an all-black college, there is a rivalry between the light-skinned, straight hair girls from the Gamma Ray sorority, and the dark-skinned Independents with short hair or Afro. It is noteworthy that the girls of the fictional Gamma Ray sorority had to be "paper-bag light." Just like in the real world, the light-skinned girls are more likely to be (or become) affluent. The movie did not create the dialogue-blacks have been discussing, debating, and dialoguing about colorism since slavery-but it did add fuel and some context to the dialogue.
I cannot say for sure but I do not believe that the brown bag test is still being used, at least not in such a brazen manner. However, the attitudes that supported the use of a brown paper bag have not completely disappeared. It is clear that light skin is still favored over dark skin in this culture and that is true whether we are looking through the eyes of whites, light-skinned African Americans, or dark-skinned African Americans. This is part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Dr. David Pilgrim
Curator / Jim Crow Museum