Veronica Roberts

August 9, 2010]---The brown paper bag test.The older folks know what this means. The younger generation may have heard about it. Slavery has done such a systematic degradation of spirit and self-confidence, that hundreds of years later, our communities are still measuring beauty, intelligence and more importantly, self-worth, by the inane shades of a paper bag.

If your skin tone was the shade of the lightest brown paper bag seen at any grocery store, you were considered beautiful, acceptable, closer in kind to the pale skin of Whites. Even phrases and words used to classify groups of people, ostensibly for census reasons, have that subtle undertone of racism, where colorism is deeply rotted. If dark brown folks are called “minorities” then the light-colored folks must be “superior,” so we aspire to be. To measure up.

I grew up on a tiny island in the Caribbean, where most of the population, approximately 95%, were of African descent. Yet the “shades of color” complex, still existed. The darker the skin, the more you were teased and called a myriad of cruel nicknames, “darkie,” “blackie,” “tarbaby,” “baboon.” The lighter brown skin was “attractive,“Cute,”high yellow.” Add soft or long hair to the mix and this combination would be the epitome of beauty.

Fast forward to today and sadly, this psychology still lingers. In the United States, the color complex simmer under the surface in our communities and beyond. We have men who would never date a “dark brown toned” woman. There are even reality shows where the star, (Ochocinco) looks like an African prince but says his preference is European looking women. To give it to you straight, he is still “self-hating.“ The brown paper effect still affects.

Then again some men preferring light skin or Caucasian women stem from being totally ignored in high school. Some sisters have perpetuated the “brown paper bag” effect as teens. I work in th school system and have noticed that some of the boys who are very dark in tone, are completely over-looked and even called names. This can create a complex in the young men, especially at a stage in life when self-esteem and confidence is shaky. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman said as much during an interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show a few years ago, when he talked about dating only white women. It does not excuse the Ochocincos and Rodmans of this world but it may explain some of it.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently did a documentary on race and skin tone among children and expressed shock at the results. I wasn’t. Most of the children, both black and white, thought light skin was prettier, smarter, better.

Why was Anderson surprised when he is part of the main stream American media who plays out the same stereotypes. I have rarely seen a very dark-skinned anchor, host or news correspondent on television, even on CNN, “the most trusted name in news.” Most are pleasingly light brown, or of ambiguous ethnicity.

We have a popular singer from the Caribbean, Jamaican Vybz Kartel, who has bleached his skin to a shockingly dramatic hue. He went from being a very dark-skinned man to the almost Michael Jackson "pigmentless" black man. Even more disturbing, Kartel advocates "skin-lightening" by advertising a soap product and singing about it in his songs. His fans, some of them young and very impressionable, look up to him and this sets a dangerous precedent.

In India, skin bleaching is a booming business and some ads even promise better jobs and a more successful life, if one has lighter skin. Even in the shanty towns where poverty abounds, there are places where one can bleach their skin for a fee and the natives folk to them. This shows the insidiousness and lingering shackles of global colonialism. (Check out this video:

So when are we going to free ourselves of this deep-rooted self-hate? When are we going to see that beauty, strength, intelligence and confidence abounds within all of us? When are we going to embrace our “multi-shades,” our array of colors as a positive rather than continue to perpetuate the self-defeating stereotypes?

We need to see ourselves as a quilt, where despite being sewn together by different colored fabric and thread, the end results is stunning artistry and history. If we can’t appreciate the sum total of our worth, can we expect others to?