The Light Skin Dark Skin Issue
By Allison Samuels
The Brown Paper Bag Test was a type of racial discrimination in the United States. A brown paper bag was used as a way to determine whether or not an individual could have certain privileges; only individuals with a skin color that is the same color or lighter than a brown paper bag were allowed. The test was used in the 20th century within many social institutions such as African-American sororities, fraternities, and churches. In addition, brown paper bags were used in multi-racial social events. The term is also used in reference to larger issues of class and social stratification within the African-American population.
Talk about words that sting to the core. Harry Reid’s recent comments about President Barack Obama’s light skin and acceptable non-“Negro” vocabulary and speech brought back a rush of memories that I’m sure most African-Americans would like to forget.
Slaves with darker skin were usually stuck toiling in the fields.
Since the days of slavery, skin color has been used as a tool of separation and preferential treatment within the black community. The residue of the “house” versus “field Negro” divide has long remained with us, even as we celebrated black pride in the ’70s and hip-hop culture in the ’80s.
House slaves were usually products of a relationship between a master and a female slave, so they tended to have lighter skin. The boss’s offspring would more than likely receive the special favor of doing work inside the house out of the hot sun. They’d eat better, often get taught to read and write, and enjoyed many of the liberties of non-slaves. Slaves with darker skin were usually stuck toiling in the fields. The anger over that old distinction has never quite gone away in African-American culture.
And Reid’s recent controversial and disturbing statements prove that no matter how hard we as African-Americans try to move past a racial stigma that’s haunted us for far too long, mainstream America just won’t let us let it go.
About Allison Samuels
Allison Samuels is a senior writer with Newsweek’s The Daily Beast. Her cover story, “The Meaning of Michelle,” appeared in Newsweek in December 2008. She is the author of three books as well as a former correspondent for NPR’s News & Notes, and she is a contributor to publications including Rolling Stone, Essence, Marie Claire, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.
This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in Newsweek on January 11th, 2010.