The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, July 10, 2004
 

The brown paper bag test


A 2003 Saint Pete Times piece alerts this transpondian gringo to an under-reported racial phenomenon.

Apparently, in the past, Negro fraternities would stick up a brown paper bag at the door, and anyone with skin darker than the bag didn't get in.

The sociological term for the preference for lighter shades amongst those of partly African descent is, apparently, shadism or colorism. It is, of course, a whole big thing - the preference of Negro men for wives of lighter hue has long been a stereotype, well before inter-racial marriage became socially acceptable in the North, and legal in the South.

But I'd never heard of the brown paper bag test before. It is, according to the Times piece, attested to, from personal experience, by the très médiatique Henry Louis Gates.

Of course, there is piquancy in the notion that colour prejudice crosses the colour line: the Times piece points out (without quantitative evidence, unfortunately) that
popular black magazines, such as Ebony [and] Essence, prefer light-skinned models in their beauty product ads.

The system of colour preferences is obviously complex, though: there is no linear relationship between success and lightness of skin tone. In Hollywood, for instance, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, not to mention billionaire Oprah Winfrey and semi-billionaire Bill Cosby, are none of them light-skinned. In the Bush Administration, Colin Powell is fairly light-skinned, but Condoleezza Rice certainly isn't.

If there is a worthwhile recent study on the subject, I haven't seen it (not saying much, of course!). It's certainly a worthy topic.

(On the marital colour preference question, I recall that, in the Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air [1], the uncle character was initially provided with a 'wife' who was notably darker than he was, but that, after a while, a lighter-skinned replacement was found. Was this shadism at work?)

  1. Which was repeated umpteen times on the BBC as early evening filler, and is therefore surprisingly well-known in the UK. A similar phenomenon has occurred with The Phil Silvers Show (or Sergeant Bilko) - which was, I believe, bought outright by the BBC, and has been used as filler for several decades.


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