Shades & Pretty Girls: Didn’t we set the paper bag aflame already?

So we've been talking about defining "blackness" per se and I think we've all agreed it's best not to try to encapsulate a race with generalized and assumptive notions. So now I'm wondering if we can agree on that, how about we stop making assumptions about each other within the race? I've been frustrated by the following labels: LSLHBBNA.. . Light Skin, Long Hair, Big Boobs, No-Ass. Though each of these things may be true… okay are true, it's the lazy arrogance of some to put you in a box with those labels and never look any further that sets my teeth on edge. When you tack "Bougie Smart Girl" behind LSLHBBNA, it's a special typecasting you have to work against. For today, let's focus on skin.

My family hosts the entire beautiful rainbow from buttercream to dark chocolate. I thought all families were that way. Have you notices that race and shades of race are something children aren't concerned with until someone else points it out and makes it a big deal?

I distinctly remember being at a Jack & Jill function at age eight with BougieYoungerBro and having a boy that I thought was a friend ask me why my younger brother was darker than me. I stood there confused (since it never occurred to me that this was an issue) and said, "I don't know he just comes that way". The boy went on to ask if we had the same father. I angrily replied, "Of course!" And followed that up with a swift kick to his right ankle. He retaliated by pushing me backwards and BougieYoungerBro started crying and tried to bite him. Good times. By then, some parents had swooped in to break up the conversation. One of the mothers took me and my brother on the side and said, "Don't pay him any mind, his whole family is passe-blanc. They still paper bag test future mates." I went home and had to ask BougieMom to explain to me what had happened.

Let me pause to explain a few things because I know of at least four readers who have no idea what I'm talking about: Jack & Jill is an African-American organization formed in 1938 to allow black children aged 2 – 19 to have cultural opportunities, develop leadership skills, and form social networks. It has always had the reputation of being a bit exclusionary with only "upper" to "upper-middle" class kids included. (I don't know if this is really true or not). Mothers have to be invited in to join the organization. When I was active, pretty much all the kids' parents were doctors, lawyers or executives. Since we all went to schools where often we were the only black (or one of a few blacks) in the school grade, Jack & Jill and the church were the two places where I was surrounded by other black people and not standing out in a crowd.

Passe-blanc is a term used to describe extremely light-skinned people of color who could "pass for white."

The "paper bag test" refers to a practice that originated during slavery. Plantation owners would place a paper bag next to slaves' skin and those that were lighter than the bag were considered worthy to work in the house, those that were darker were sent to the field. This kind of blatant colorism still permeates our thinking today.

From The Hilltop Online (Howard Unviersity Student Newpaper):

According to an article written by Audrey Elisa Kerr, an associate English professor at Southern Connecticut State University, light-skinned slaves-particularly women-were considered "gentler, kinder, more handsome, smarter, and more delicate" than darker-skinned slaves.

Washington, D.C., once played a large role in the dark-skin/light-skin game. Because slavery did not have such an economic impact in the District, many free blacks preferred to reside in the area. In the mid-19th century, barbershops began accommodating only light-skinned black men.

Not only was race a factor, but skin tone became one. Churches, schools and various organizations utilized the paper bag test for social verification. There were also multitudes of brown bag parties, clubs, and social circles.

With colorism having such strong bearing in the nation's capital, Howard has been accused of utilizing the brown paper bag test.

Inclusion in various organizations sometimes depended on skin tone as well.

Dr. Jennifer Jordan, an African-American literature professor at Howard, doesn't believe much has changed in the overall scope of the paper bag theory.

"Look at the rappers and their music videos," Jordan said. "[Colorism] exists everywhere."

Speaking of rappers, Wale (a DC-based rapper) infuriated a large portion of the Twitterverse by previewing his video for Pretty Girls Monday. Problem? The majority of the pretty girls in his video were light-skinned. Now I don't know if being denied an opportunity to shake your ass is justice denied… really. Add to this the fact that he also has out another song called "Shades" in which he details the dynamic of being a dark-skinned man who had previous issues with light-skinned women and Chrisette Michele (a light skinned-woman) sung on that track with him. Based on all the evidence, I didn't see it as a big deal. Others disagreed. Here's the video, tell me what you think:

The thing that disturbs me is that we are STILL talking about it in 2010. I recall about 10 years ago being a restaurant with some girlfriends. As it happened, I was the lightest skinned girl at the table. The dark-skinned waiter would come to the table and speak directly to me, no one else. After the second time, they teased me saying, "Well at least we'll get good service since there's somebody acceptable at the table." They laughed but I wasn't amused. I said, "Come on, how do you know that's what it is? Maybe I remind him of someone." They all laughed and one said, "Yeah, his future baby mama. If you smile a little bigger, we might get these crabcakes for free, girl."

As the night went on and he got more and more obvious with his blatant exclusion of everyone at the table but me, I was increasingly upset. "I'm going to call him on it." They all said, "No!" I asked, "Why not?" One answered, "Girl, this is just how some folks are. Light bright and damn near white is always right in their eyes. We can get mad and rail about it but they aren't going to change their minds. And if you call him out on it, you go from being some ideal girl in his head to some stuck up chick trying to tell him about himself. We still have to order dessert." The episode unsettled me because to me, they were accepting his disrespect. Later they reminded me that you have to pick your battles. Telling off the waiter at a restaurant we'd never go to again wasn't one they felt was worth fighting.

In Wal-mart the other day, I heard some young girls talking about how happy they were about the way their babies turned out. Healthy? I thought. No. One girl said her girl was light skinned and the other said her boy was dark skinned and that's the way it should be. She did not want her boy to look like "no punk". Uh – has skin tone ever been an indicator of punky vs. thuggy behavior? Back in the day both Ice-T and Ice Cube scared me shitless, now I'd let either of them babysit BougieFam. The one girl said she was glad her baby girl was light skinned with "good hair" because life would be easier for her. For real tho? That baby girl's less than intelligent underage mama is buying glitter to put on her baby's onesie for Mardi Gras but she's gonna have an easy road due to skin and hair?

I could go on and on all day. The guy who told me not to get "too much sun" on vacation because he liked his ladies to "keep it light." The guy who told me if I "darken it up" he could take me out, he only dated "real" sistas. There are so many instances where the words 'color-struck' don't even begin to cover it. And I haven't enough time or energy to discuss the ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency as it relates to skintone. I'll just ask this question – if Barack looked like Djimon Hounsou, was he electable?


Okay maybe a few more questions, do you think as a race we will EVER get beyond skintone? Has your life been impacted (negatively or positively) because of your shade of skin?

Tomorrow on BnB explores blackness…. Hair. Le Sigh.