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The paper bag test

BILL MAXWELL
Published August 31, 2003

Each year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives about 85,000 discrimination cases, a phenomenon to be expected in a society that touts itself as a "melting pot."

Many of these cases involve the complaints of minority groups against majority groups. We rarely expect a member of a minority group to discriminate against someone else in the same group. But that is exactly what happens among African-Americans.

More than any other minority group in the United States, blacks discriminate against one another. The discrimination, called "colorism," is based on skin tone: whether a person is dark-skinned or light-skinned or in the broad middle somewhere.

Most African-Americans refuse to discuss this self-destructive problem even in private. According to the EEOC, though, the number of such cases are steadily increasing, jumping from 413 in fiscal year 1994 to 1,382 in 2002, a figure that represents about 3 percent of all cases the agency receives yearly.

The most recent case making news in the black press involves two employees of an Applebee's restaurant in Jonesboro, Ga., near Atlanta. There, Dwight Burch, a dark-skinned waiter, who has left the restaurant, filed a lawsuit against Applebee's and his light-skinned African-American manager.

In the suit, Burch alleged that during his three-month stint, the manager repeatedly referred to him as a "black monkey" and a "tar baby." The manager also told Burch to bleach his skin, and Burch was fired after he refused to do so, the suit states.

Colorism has a long and ugly history among American blacks, dating back to slavery, when light-skinned blacks were automatically given preferential treatment by plantation owners and their henchmen.

Colorism's history is fascinating: Fair-skinned slaves automatically enjoyed plum jobs in the master's house, if they had to work at all. Many traveled throughout the nation and abroad with their masters and their families. They were exposed to the finer things, and many became educated as a result. Their darker-tone peers toiled in the fields. They were the ones who were beaten, burned and hanged, the ones permanently condemned to be the lowest of the low in U.S. society. For them, even learning - reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic - was illegal.

When slavery ended, light-skinned blacks established social organizations that barred darker ex-slaves. Elite blacks of the early 20th century were fair-skinned almost to the person. Even today, most blacks in high positions have fair skin tones, and most blacks who do menial jobs or are in prison are dark. Believe it or not, popular black magazines, such as Ebony as Essence, prefer light-skinned models in their beauty product ads.

For many years, entrance to special social events operated on the "brown paper bag" principle, which I will explain. Until quite recently, black fraternities and sororities, for example, recruited according to skin tone. Spike Lee's film School Daze satirizes the problem, and Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple makes it a biting subtext.

In his 1996 book The Future of the Race, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, described his encounter with the brown paper bag when he came to Yale in the late 1960s, when skin-tone bias was brazenly practiced: "Some of the brothers who came from New Orleans held a "bag party.' As a classmate explained it to me, a bag party was a New Orleans custom wherein a brown paper bag was stuck on the door.

"Anyone darker than the bag was denied entrance. That was one cultural legacy that would be put to rest in a hurry - we all made sure of that. But in a manner of speaking, it was replaced by an opposite test whereby those who were deemed "not black enough' ideologically were to be shunned. I was not sure this was an improvement."

Gates was overly optimistic. The brown paper bag test remains in black culture in various incarnations, as the Applebee's case and the EEOC's statistics confirm. We separate ourselves by skin tone almost as much as we ever did. If, say, you check out the "desired" female beauties in rap videos, you will find redbones galore.

Back to the Applebee's case. A spokesman for the chain issued this statement: "No one should have to put up with mean and humiliating comments about the color of their skin on the job. . . . It makes no difference that these comments are made by someone of your own race. Actually, that makes it even worse." Although the chain denied the allegations, it paid Burch $40,000 to settle the suit.

Now for the irony of ironies: Applebee's has added a protection, along with cultural sensitivity training, against skin-tone discrimination to its antidiscrimination policies.

In other words, the company must protect African-Americans from other African-Americans.

Discrimination from whites and other groups remains a big problem for blacks. But colorism is just as serious, if not more so. Colorism saps our strength from the inside. It weakens our power and ability to fight the outside forces that keep us marginalized in larger society.

Correction

The Tamiami Trail was misidentified as Alligator Alley in Bill Maxwell's Aug. 27 column.

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