Editor's note: This story was originally published by the school newspaper at Hunter College High School and is now being presented on the Daily News website as part of The Newsies! high school journalism competition for 2016.
First Place, Opinion/Editorial Writing
Jazz culture took New York City by storm in the 1920s, sweeping up music lovers and partygoers into the long swinging nights at Harlem's famous clubs. Perhaps the most famous jazz spot was The Cotton Club; visitors from around the globe took the A train uptown to Sugar Hill to hear Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and other ground-breaking jazz musicians perform with their orchestras. The all-white customers weren't just lovers of music — they also came to see the Copper-Colored Gals, the club's troup of lovely light-skinned dancers. But the white gangster owners of the Cotton Club had a strict rule for young female performers hoping to join the chorus line: their skin had to be lighter than a brown paper bag. Coined the "paper bag test," this criterion was used for decades to determine the degree of privilege granted to individual African-Americans all over the United States.
The test was once a notable example of a once-common form of prejudice. Access to social events, jobs, clubs, and schools was often determined by a person's complexion. According to Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, "New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party — usually at a gathering in a home — where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance."
This form of prejudice is not merely an abstract historical construct; many individuals, still alive today, remember vividly the effects of what is now called "colorism," or bias against people with darker skin. For a first-hand account, I spoke to my grandmother, Evelyn Porter, about her experiences as a young African-American woman in Savannah, Georgia in the mid-twentieth century. She told me that "one of the restauranst I can remember... not far from the old courthouse... would advertise for waitresses, and they would have 'light-skinned only.'"
The "paper bag test" itself has faded into history, but colorism has persisted, albeit in a more subtle and insidious form. Today, African-Americans in predominantly white communities are often told that they "aren't really black," or that they are "the whitest black person" their friends know. Comments like these are not compliments. To associate speaking behaviors — such as speaking articulately or frequenting Starbucks — with whiteness turns them into false markers of membership in a favored group. Viewed in this distorting light, mundane actions are then seen as privileged choices, normative only for those who are called white or who have been deemed white enough by their peers. When white peers volunteer unsolicited commentary on the perceived blackness of their 21st century African-American classmates, these judgements recall the paper bag held up to a dancer's skin to determine whether it was of a light enough shade to be seen on the Cotton Club stage.
So what about those who do not "pass" the modern-day test. As Audrey Elisa Kerr writes in The Paper Bag Principle: Class Colorism, and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, D.C., "to indicate that one does not 'pass' the brown bag test functions as a form of slur." A definition of "whiteness' that includes specific behaviors and qualities, many of which are actually universal, fails to recognize that people of color are perfectly capable of possessing, in an inherently black way and not as a "pale" imitation of others, any supposedly white trait. No one group has a monopoly on cosmopolitanism, taste, intelligence, or any other positive characteristic, yet to a 21st century minority, it often feels as though many white individuals associate these traits exclusively with their own race. When people of color behave in an admirable manner, they are not living up to a notion of presupposed white centrality, but are simply exhibiting qualities that they possess as individuals.
Like the Copper-Colored Gals of the 1920s, modern black individuals who are deemed "almost white" are not truly members of the metaphorical club. Being "nearly white" does not grand you the privileges of whiteness — there will still be peopple who credit your achievements to affirmative action, cops who see you as a threat, and storeowners who assume that you are shopping with no intention of buying. Such is the nature of provisional membership; it can be withdrawn at a moment's notice.