In “The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism, and Rumor in the Case of Black Washington, D.C.,” Dr. Audrey Elisa Kerr of SCSU’s Department of English explores the history of colorism—prejudice against individuals with darker skin tones—in Washington, D.C.’s black communities during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A byproduct of racism, colorism especially affected black communities in the Jim Crow era. During that time, those who had lighter complexions, appeared racially ambiguous, or were able to pass as white were afforded considerable privileges above those who could not. In New Orleans, there was a sophisticated legal caste system that gave incremental benefits based on one’s percentage of white ancestry. “In contemporary cases, there isn’t as much of a need to pass because the legal ramifications of belonging to certain groups aren’t as severe. Historically, looking white was a difference of working or not working. Proximity to whiteness equaled proximity to power. I think it was less about a demonization of darkness as it was a sort of aspiration toward lightness, which equaled access and power,” said Dr. Kerr.
The eponymous “Paper Bag Principle” refers to a practice wherein if you wanted admittance to an elite event, a paper bag was held up to your skin. If you were darker than the bag, you could not come in. The test mostly existed as an urban myth, though Dr. Kerr found people who claimed they were actually subjected to the test. More commonly, the exclusion of darker-skinned people was an unspoken rule. Langston Hughes, who was light-skinned and from a prominent D.C. family, wrote about a party in which he was granted admittance, but his darker-skinned mother was not.
Colorism was especially prevalent in Washington, D.C. The District was the historical capital of black aristocracy. It is also the home of Howard University, considered the most prestigious historically black university in the country. Aristocracy during the 19th and early 20th centuries had a reputation of being prim, moneyed, and extremely exclusive. Many members of Washington’s aristocratic class had some white ancestry and tended to be lighter complexioned than the large numbers of Southern migrants who ended up in Washington seeking opportunity. “They could pass as white and get very good jobs with the federal government… many wealthy blacks had parlors in their homes where they hosted literary salons and entertained guests. These were places where other aristocratic blacks were able to go to enjoy the ‘finer things in life.’ But it didn’t embrace folk culture. You wouldn’t invite, for example, a local blues singer to perform in your parlor. You would invite a black opera singer or a man of letters. It was a way to announce one’s full humanity in the face of Jim Crow; at the same time it is a careful replication of what white folks were doing,” said Dr. Kerr.
Being able to pass as white gave aristocratic Washingtonians opportunities to enter great places of culture and learning that were typically forbidden to black people, such as the National Theater. In order to stop them from gaining access, white establishments would hire “spotters.” Spotters were black people hired to pick out any black person attempting to illegally enter a segregated venue. “The spotter was important to white institutions because, presumably, black folks could always identify other black folks, or they simply remembered them [from their own neighborhood],” said Dr. Kerr. “The most interesting cases I’ve seen were when white folks attempted to go to white establishments and were wrongly accused of being people of color. It all highlights the ridiculousness of race as a concrete category.”
Dr. Kerr notes that colorism isn’t just limited to African-American communities. Colorism is a painful legacy present in many countries touched by white colonization and racism. In 2010, skin lightening creams were a $432-million-a-year business in India. In Latin America, light skin and straight hair are highly associated with wealth and power.
For the book, Dr. Kerr also collected creation stories and blues lyrics that involved complexion. She scoured archives of the historical black press to collect folk remedies designed to lighten skin and straighten hair. For Dr. Kerr, it was important to preserve these folk remedies. “I consider these to be folk forms that indoctrinate young children into understanding what their ‘place’ will be in society later on…I know of no nation that has experienced colonization by the West that does not have folk practices related to hair and complexion. Moreover, if you read the memoirs of Black American writers, I can’t think of one who doesn’t talk about color in their communities,” said Dr. Kerr.
“The Paper Bag Principle – Class, Colorism, and Rumor in the Case of Black Washington, D.C.” is available on Amazon.