Dark Girls: Getting Past The Paper Bag Test

Dark Girls: Getting Past The Paper Bag Test

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.