Dark Girls: Getting Past The Paper Bag Test

For centuries African Americans were told their skin color was inferior. A documentary that points out the consequences has people talking. Will the conversation end there though?

Have we allowed our society to redefine what beauty really means? (Photo courtesy of Thinkstockphotos.com)

I remember sitting around with the fellas a few years ago. And I said it: “Light-skinned brothers are making a comeback. Chocolate brothers have been on top of the game for decades. Morris Chestnut. Idris Elba. Watch out though. We’re on our way back.” It was 2011. Gone were the days of DeBarge and Prince. Light-skinned brothers had been pushed to the periphery. In my mind, there was hope. I had my examples lined up. Jesse Williams—women love him as a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. Tony Parker—a hoops star who spoke fluent French. Not to mention Michael Ealy, a Tyler Perry movie favorite. We jokingly made our cases for which group was “in” and which group was “out” when it came to the ladies.

Last night, another light-skinned/dark-skinned issue was raised. But this one was much less light-hearted. It wasn’t a barbershop conversation. In fact, it probably isn’t regularly discussed in beauty shops because it’s a touchy subject. It addressed a harsh reality that women deal with every day.

Struggles, both internal and external, accompany the “call” of being a black woman. Skin color has internally divided the black community for decades. Last night, a documentary, titled Dark Girls, appeared on OWN—one of the few times you’ll catch a brother watching OWN—addressing this very issue

The documentary began with a historical survey of African American culture and the impact of slavery on black people’s perception of themselves. Hundreds of years in colonized America being treated inferior has certainly had a psychological impact on African Americans. As the film pointed out, “The colonizer was superior. If the superior looked a certain way [i.e., white], then you aspired to reach that level.” From this mentality sprang the infamous “paper bag test.” If African Americans were lighter than a brown paper bag, they were beautiful. If they were darker than a brown paper bag, they were considered unattractive. I’d heard of this as a child, but growing up I never really bought it. In my adult years (especially while in college), I’ve learned that many young black girls really do wrestle with their skin color.

During the documentary, one interviewee wished she could just wake up lighter one day or at least wash her face to remove her skin color because she thought it was dirt. Another shared a story of a friend who exclaimed after the birth of her child, “Girl, I’m so glad [your baby] didn’t come out dark.” Another participant told producers that there was an unofficial policy at a store he worked at to hire lighter-skinned people rather than darker skinned people. Lighter-skinned people presented better. Really?

The more I watched, the more I was reminded that the struggle continues. To hear some of this stuff come out of people’s mouths was a bit disconcerting. Black people disparaging members of a people group they are a part of. And the media hasn’t been helpful. Viola Davis, award-winning actress, recalled, “I never [saw] any examples on television or film of anyone associated with beauty…that looked like me.” Imagine going through your entire childhood without seeing anyone black associated with beauty. The documentary pointed out that 7 out of 10 black girls ages 8-17 feel like they don’t measure up in appearance. That’s 70% of young black women walking around today! How are we, as an African American community, reassuring their beauty? What are we doing to increase our young women’s self-esteem?

Here’s the irony. Some white people spend tons of money trying to tan their bodies in order to get dark, while some black people spend tons of money trying to lighten their skin. One interviewee stated, “White people made me appreciate my skin color, black people made me question it.” She’d been complimented by whites for her skin color, while blacks vilified her skin tone. Just sad.

A few notable tweets in my feed last night:

Categorizing ourselves “light skin” or “dark skin”we are saying we are closer to the social construct that says white is more valuable. #DarkGirls

We, including myself, have to do better at recognizing where we believe certain lies and stereotypes about our beauty. #DarkGirls

I didn’t know anything about dark skin being “bad” until I transferred to majority black American school in 7th grade. #DarkGirls

There are so many shades of color in my family…we appreciate them all. #DarkGirls

How many more records would Angie Stone, India Arie, and Fantasia had sold if they looked like Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Ciara, or Beyonce? #DarkGirls

Truth is, every girl has a story to tell. Dark Girls who have to defend their beauty & Light Girls who have to defend their race. #DarkGirls

So what did the documentary teach me that I didn’t already know? Not much more than I already learned as a double HBCU graduate (shout out to Morehouse College and Howard Law School). But having it trend in social media was a conversation starter. A conversation that shouldn’t stop at identifying the problem, but coming up with adequate solutions to make young ladies feel valued. And maybe one day the only brown paper bag we care about is the greasy one from our favorite hole-in-the-wall soul food restaurant.

What are your thoughts on the Dark Girls documentary? Tired of the light-skinned/dark-skinned dichotomy? Speak on it.



About the author, John C. Richards Jr.

John C. Richards Jr. is the Associate Director of Adult Content Development at Urban Ministries, Inc. (UMI). He has served as a guest contributor for Huffington Post's Black Voices column and has written devotionals for Streaming Faith, the world's largest online faith-based broadcasting portal. Visit his website, brotherpreacher.com and follow him on Twitter @brotherpreacher.
  1. As a lighter skinned Black woman, I am coming from the other side of this issue. I have times when I hate my light skin and wish I could change it. The marginalization I have experienced as a result of it has been downright painful, and having to prove my “Blackness” has been beyond frustrating. I bristle at other Black folks’ so-called jokes about my skin, or calling me a “White girl”. The bottom line is, I did not have anything to do with my complexion, anymore than anyone else had to do with theirs. It is a product of my family history, which was not sunshine and roses. My family experienced the same slavery and racism that every other Black person’s family did. I know why my skin is fair, and it’s not a pretty story. To boast in that would be ridiculous.

    Those of fairer skin who somehow ascribe superiority to their tone are deceived. Frankly, I hate that my complexion and the way culture has defined complexion in general causes my darker skinned Black sisters so much pain. African-American Christians should be focusing on how to redefine ourselves in light of our identity in Christ and not by culture. Our culture – both Black culture and American culture – need to be critiqued in the light of Scripture.

    • I was touched by your post. Please, please understand that your complexion does not cause pain in every darker skinned Black woman. Many of us come from families that run the gamut of shade and we live together and love one another.

  2. As a dark skinned woman, I have struggled with my skin color all my life. I have just recently started to appreciate my skin color. However, I am still a work in progress because there are some mornings that I look at myself in the mirror and I hear the past. Hey Darkie, you aren’t light enough etc. Last night documentary brought up a lot of those feelings again. I found comfort in knowning I am not the only person who feels that way. You know I even purposely had children with a man that would give me light skinned children because I felt that if I had dark skinned children they would not be viewed as beautiful by socieities standards. It’s still hard to love my skin color. But the fact that I am not alone is making it a lot easier to cope with.

  3. I’m not Black, but I am a White woman who always finds the conversation at Urban Faith interesting. I rarely comment, because I feel I really am listening in to the conversation of others. But I am deeply sad to read of the “paper bag test,” and that 70% find it a struggle. I wonder how much of this is related to our historical Black/White issues and how much is related to the struggle the majority of women and girls have with body image and beauty. Or how we all struggle with thinking that what we don’t have is better. Like the person with beautiful curls who straightens her hair, or vice versa, or the tanning thing. Don’t know, of course, but it is likely a mix. Oh, may the day come soon when this sort of thinking is remembered as a bygone relic of a less enlightened time. GOD must love diversity, since there is so much of it in creation. I hope some day we can genuinely celebrate it with joy. All of us.

    • Sorry, white self esteem issues are not the mirror image of black self esteem issues.
      A chubby white girl may see a vogue model who is thin, but a black girl is unlikely to see a vogue model her color, period. Most black people on TV are mixed or ambiguous looking. It is rare for a dark girl to see someone who looks like her at all.
      There is a big difference between being told, for centuries, you are unattractive because you don’t fit a certain shape or size, and being told you are subhuman for your features for centuries.
      Not to mention, which this article weirdly misses, is that these eurocentric beauty standards have been internalized in the lives of colored people to the point where males seek out lighter skinned black girls, thinking they are better.

  4. It’s SAD that this is even an issue in 2013! People would do well to spend some time in the Google “image” files, and just gaze at the incredible variety of skin color found in the entire human family. There is beauty in ALL colors, but humans have to make the effort to THANK GOD FOR IT! COLOR IS GOOD AND MORE COLORS ARE BETTER! It really is that simple….from the “glacial beauty” of Iceland to the “ebony richness” of Sudan, we find the matchless creativity and artistry of our Creator’s hand–the same Creator who loved us enough
    to provide a planet of wonder to live on and a universe to gaze at! We need to jettison the
    “beauty standards” screamed at us in media and advertising, and revel in who we are and
    what we’ve been given! I agree with Dorcas that much of our problem is rooted in how women
    are made to feel and the obsession with some fantasy of “beauty” that is foisted upon women. But men who are “not handsome” are also NOT appreciated–look at network TV’s
    obsession with young, slender people with “perfect” bodies–you see very few average, chunky or heavier commentators–even mesomorphic folks with muscular skeletons are NOT chosen over thin, fine-boned ectomorphs….and you better NOT be short! Unfortunately, people of color (both sexes) find that their beauty is unwanted–because they may not look like
    Barbie and Ken dolls.

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  6. This cannot be separated from history, period.
    I am not sure what you mean when you say what are we as the African American community going to do about it. This problem didn’t originate with us in the first place, but we are expected to end in on our own?
    The reason why blacks feel light/white is better cannot be unplugged from history as if it is just is blacks whose minds are screwed up. History has real consequences, and if people have been told that they are inferior for the greater part of 200 years and onwards, it won’t magically be fixed overnight, and it won’t be the work of just the black race, as of we are not Americans too.
    The self esteem of white girls are seen as an American problem, for which we all must stop and pay attention to. Black self esteem issues are seen as just pathology, and it is SICK how quickly blacks buy into this garbage.

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  8. Pingback: Not Caste in Color: Dispelling Myths in Our Classrooms | InfoCnxn.com

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  10. I recently wrote a research paper on mixed race identity. I really appreciated your article and actually cited it in my paper. I identify as black most often then not, but when I see the looks I get I might add multiracial. I look white and depending on the day and the way I do my hair people might call me Latina (even though I am not Hispanic, Latina, or Chicana). I have always been aware that I was different. I get laughed at or given strange looks. I remember when I was around 7 a couple young black girls chased me around a play ground because they thought I was lying and wanted to beat me up. I didn’t understand why until I got older. I am very proud of my ancestry and being a black women. It hurts to have to prove I am black. I you to wish I had darker skin despite what stigmas that people have towards it. I have grown to love my skin, but I do every now and again still wish it was darker. I am fully aware of internalization and colonization of the mind. One of the earlier comments said it is not the black communities problem to fix. In fact it is! We have internalized these racial ideologies and WE must first recognize that, understand it, and work on it. How can we possibly come together as a people when we are perpetuating the very thing that holds people of color back?! I can go on and on, but I won’t. Thank you for this.

  11. one more thing, this is the very color-caste system b. hooks talks about.