The Brown Paper Bag Test

The Brown Paper Bag TestWhen she heard that Olympic gold medalist, Gabby Douglas, was getting flack from a sector of the black community over — of all things — her hair, my friend Kay (not her real name) asked my opinion.

I responded to Kay by noting the issues at play that week and replying with a bit of sarcasm:

“We’ve got local police departments using tax payer dollars to procure drones, the number of vacant/foreclosed homes in this country exceeds the number of homeless people, local police walking around with weapons that look like grenade launchers, people dying because they can’t afford decent healthcare, polar ice caps melting at rates unheard of in recorded history,  and oh. . . yeah, Gabby Douglas’ hair.”

I guess I was a little snarky. In all fairness, Kay contacted me solely because, in the past, I’d written about the link between black hair and social ranking within the black community. In my article, I talked about growing up black in America in the 60s. I discussed the connection between hair and conforming to implicit and explicit codes of behavior — those dictated by both the dominant culture and by the black community, a community that is often misunderstood by those outside of it.  Kay, who is white, told me the article shifted her perspective. It gave her answers to questions she was raised to believe were impolite to ask. She suspected that the chatter about Gabby’s hair may have been connected to what I’d written months ago — so she wanted my take.

In case you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about – Gabby Douglas, the first U.S. gymnast to win Olympic gold in both individual and team gymnastic events was the topic of a much heated debate — a debate among a small group of black people about her hair!! The only thing more ridiculous than the debate was the fact that mainstream media was having a field day with the story.

This debate was raging during the Olympic Games.  Hard to believe? At the time of the debate, if you searched “Gabby Douglas Hair” in Google, you’d end up with more than 700,000 results — significantly more than you’d get if you were to perform a similar search for any other Olympic athlete. If you performed the same search but replaced Gabby’s name with Michael Phelps’, you’d get about 3,000 results. Want to compare Gabby’s hair searchability to another female gold medalist? Okay — do a similar search this time using the name, Misty May Treanor, the two-time U.S. Gold Medalist beach volleyball athlete – you’ll see a significant difference in the returns.

While it may be hard to understand why this Twitter debate was a featured story in thousands of publications — from to the Washington Post — the mere fact that it was gives rise to lots of questions, not the least of which is its relevance to contemporary racial dialogue. The article carried in the Washington Post talks about the toll this has taken on Gabby and how it negatively impacted her performance.

The screenshot below captures the tone of the debate. This is just a snippet of the tens of thousands of tweets. The rest of the article continues below the screen shot so please keep reading:

The Brown Paper Bag Test

Time has passed since this topic was trending but the stories about Gabby’s hair continued to be carried in all the major news outlets for far longer than a story about a hair-do warranted.

So, to my buddy Kay and anybody else who doesn’t get it, here’s my take:

What we see in this debate is an outward expression of an internalized set of beauty standards that trump performance, excellence, and intelligence when ranking social standing. The tweeters were expressing disapproval of the breaking of an implicit social norm adhered to within the black community.

According to tens of thousands on Twitter, Gabby violated the oft-unspoken rule of exposing unintentional kinky hair. This violation, in some sectors of the black community, isn’t simply a social fau paux, this is a major misstep – one that was important enough for them to address. This debate is not new. What is new is the attention given to it by mainstream media.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

The Gabby Douglas hair debate, within the black community, is similar to the color debate — again, I’m referring to the color debate that exists within the black community, which is somewhat different from the one openly shared with so-called “mainstream” society.

Not unlike other ethnic groups, blacks adhere to an implicit social pecking order, the rungs of which are loosely tied to physical traits as well as other characteristics.  Before the Black consciousness movement of the 60s, this social pecking order was more rigid and more explicit than it is today, but it lingers nevertheless. Early in my childhood, it was clear to me that blacks who most closely resembled whites were hierarchically advantaged. This pecking order is addressed in fact and fiction by acclaimed authors Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and others. Alice Walker coined the term, “colorism” to describe this social order where some received unearned benefits simply because of the kind of facial features, skin, and hair they were born with.

Wikipedia defines colorism this way:

Colorism refers to a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings of the same-race are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. Colorism can be found across the world, specifically in the United States,Latin America, Asia, the Arab World and Africa.The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy,” a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color.

Whether the social pecking order is determined by skin color, hair texture, facial, or body features or any combination of these, the standard being measured against is the same: physical characteristics that are typically associated with being Caucasian are considered the best. Having physical characteristics that appear to have come from sub-Saharan African ancestry will put you on the lowest rungs of the social pecking order, especially if one is female. This can have far reaching consequences.

In one of the best books I’ve read in many years, author and civil rights attorney, Connie Rice (cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) discusses the impact of colorism. The book, Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones, was so compelling, I couldn’t put it down. She got me with the opening chapter, a story of early childhood when she encountered a very dark-skinned boy. The Brown Paper Bag Test

Rice, who is labeled ‘high yellow’ by one of the characters in the book, is light-skinned by African-American standards. At this point in her life, she hadn’t met anyone with skin the color of the boy who she would later follow home. Apparently, the boy had never met anyone who looked like Rice either because when he met her he asked, “What Is You”? Rice becomes friends with the boy, later visiting his home. As a result, she sees depths of poverty she did not know existed. She credits this early relationship and the awareness it gave her for being one of the driving forces that ignited a spark for social justice within her that has remained lit to this day. The book is worth reading.

People of color, but more specifically, Black people, are acutely aware of this hierarchy, even today with the Obama family in the White House. In fact, some argue that the Obama administration — with its appointment of so many blacks that have passed the “brown paper bag test” — is yet another demonstration of this deeply rooted far reaching adherence to colorism. Lest you think this a nonissue at the higher echelons of society, take a look at the montage below:

The Brown Paper Bag Test

Margaret Hamburg, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner; Susan Rice, United Nations Secretary; Lisa Jackson, EPA Commissioner; Valerie Jarrett, Senior White House Advisor; Eric Holder, Attorney General.

But although we frequently talk about skin color as being a defining characteristic of blackness, hair texture is as much or more of a focus in the black community – particularly with black women. Perhaps because it’s easier to control, due to inventions dating back to the turn of the 20th century, hair gets greater scrutiny within the black community and is one of the driving forces for a multibillion dollar industry. For example, in 1905, Madame CJ Walker invented a method of hair straightening that became so popular the revenue it generated made her the first African-American  millionaire. Frankly, I believe that skin bleaching would have been as popular as hair straightening had it been effective. But in 1905, blacks couldn’t lighten their skin or alter their features (think Michael Jackson) but they could de-kink or straighten their hair. And today most black women, especially those in the public eye, still do.

So how does this relate to the Gabby hair debate? Well, the “problem” with Gabby’s hair — again, this is being characterized as a problem from the standpoint of the twitter debaters who are apparently adhering to the social rules established in an effort to conform to white standards of beauty  — is that Gabby was wearing a straight weave but her own biological hair (which was visible during the Olympic games) was not straightened at least not at the roots. In other words, her natural hair — the new growth at the roots — had not been de-kinked before she went on camera. Her appearance on the international stage, showing unintentionally nappy hair, broke the rules. I want to be clear here. I am talking about UNINTENTIONALLY nappy hair – not the Whoopi Goldberg or Angela Davis kind of nappy where it is apparent that these women embrace their natural beauty. Gabby’s wrongdoing – again, in the minds of the tweeters – was that she or her mother purchased a straight weave but didn’t keep up with Gabby’s new growth by keeping it straight too.

This should have been a non-issue. But apparently, the Washington Post and countless other publications disagree. And maybe it is because of them and the 700,000 other online mentions of Gabby’s hair, that I felt the need to write this piece.

Gabby Douglas with the help of her family and coaches accomplished something no other American gymnast has accomplished. Notice I didn’t say, “no other African-American gymnast”. This feat was irrespective of race. Not, in the history of America’s involvement in Olympic gymnastics has an athlete, black, white, Latina, or Asian American accomplished what Gabby accomplished. She and her network of support deserve to be acknowledged and applauded. But this story also shines a beacon of a light on some of the often hidden factors that continue to linger, shame, and impede progress.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

Sharon Kyle, Intentionally Kinky

The LA Progressive is a social justice magazine. The reason I’ve written this piece and am publishing it here is because at its core, colorism is about unearned advantage and the flip side of that coin — unearned disadvantage. I don’t mean to imply that the Obama administration appointments didn’t earn their positions. I doubt that any one of them could have gotten as far as they have without dedication, intelligence and hard work. But I also suspect there were doors opened for them that quite possibly were closed to other blacks for reasons that have less to do with merit and more to do with skin complexion, body size, and hair. These are important issues to raise. When brought out in the open they can lead to discussions that result in greater understanding and, in a perfect world — if handled appropriately, a more just society.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

Published Friday, 24 August 2012


  1. Linda says

    I tend to think that criticism like that about Gabby’s hair reflects a fair amount of jealousy, though perhaps unconscious, on the part of the people making the criticism. It’s as though they’re saying, “She’s not like us. We spend a lot of time and money on our appearance yet she doesn’t, and despite that, look how successful she is.” I think people do this quite frequently and unless we’re honest about the motivation behind it, it’s not likely to change.

  2. says

    Great article Sharon and thanks for writing it! My hopes are that it breaks through and is heard for what you are really saying…and the truth you speak.

    As a lighter shade of black…I’ve been admonished for my bohemian styles of dress and my desire to wear my naturally curly locks, but I’m glad that my mom and dad reinforced in me that authenticity leads to happiness.

    And I hope Gabby’s parents are reinforcing in her the same sense of well being…because if you don’t define “YOU” for yourself, there is no shortage of people waiting in line to do it for you.

    Gabby did the darn thing at the Olympics and that’s all my 6 sons and I noticed and that’s what counts!

  3. says

    Some think this topic is unworthy comment. I don’t. The late Malsom X often spoke of men and women processing their hair as “self-hatred.” Whether that is the case or not, I don’t know. However, just as white priveledge allows whites access that even they are not fully aware exists; so it goes in the black community even though it rarely reaches the level of frank discussion and for a variety of reasons. One key element is family. Because of slavery and the sexual abuse of black women by slavemasters and their sons the “black” population is the Rainbow Coalition. I classify myself as a black man. There are African-Americans living here and the most visible is the President of the United States. His father was African and his mother was American, thus an African American. This undercurrent in the community even extends to portions of towns in the South where slave owners would actually visit the lighter children. As far as Gabby’s hair? All of it is hers in one way or another. She is a World Champion! Black is still beautiful or that is until the Negro Minutia Police come into the picture.

  4. ANNIE PIERCE says

    Unfortunately, these comments just let me know that the “Willie Lynch” Syndrome is STILL alive and well in the Black community, and it is soooooooo sad, that African Americans have not spiritually overcome this psychological “divide and conquer” technique used to control us centuries ago during Slavery! What’s REALLY interesting to me is that the individuals behind these hair and ponytail conversations seem to totally ignore Ms. Douglas’ FANTASTIC talent and skill necessary to win the two Gold Medals! What’s worse…racism from without, or from within?
    Gabby…you could have worn a beanie hat on your head, as far as I’m concerned. My PRIDE for YOU and your accomplishments at the OLYMPICS brought me to tears…ponytail and all! 😀

  5. The Bra Lady - Penny Rich Bras says

    …and what are you trying to convey with YOUR crop? Perhaps YOU should be wearing a brown paper bag!

  6. The Bra Lady says

    LOOK LADY!! Don’t you have anything better to talk about? There’s just GOT to be something more important than this “brown bag” of crap to spend so much time on.

  7. says

    I have long thought that one of the most insidious impacts of American slavery and the subsequent treatment of anyone with any African ancestry as not merely second class citizens but as essentially “less than” was to engender the internalization by far too many black people that in order to be acceptable we needed to “aspire” to mirror European standards of attractiveness and cultural acceptability. In this country, hair texture and skin color are political. It is important that we continue to address these internal issues. It’s the only way that we can heal ourselves. Well said, Sharon. Thank you.

  8. dusty says

    Bravo for discussing the insidious nature of discrimination and the internalization of “standards” of beauty or acceptability that both allow and perpetuate standards that have little to do with the internal traits, talents, and accomplishments of we the people. The hierarchies created both in social practice and in internalized concepts of the self and the fear of unacceptability effect every one; but those who are seen as outside the best boundaries or standards critically, as people try to change themselves to meet the standards.

  9. says

    Wow.. I thought it was the way all the girls were wearing their pony tails that had everyone a buzz, and since Gabby essentially won the biggest gymnastics championship in the world, she got the brunt of it. I didn’t even realize she was wearing two different textures of hair. All I saw was a wonderful young girl perform flawless gymnastics. :) Go Gabby! :)

  10. harry wood says

    I must be messed up for a white guy, I notice that blacks are of different shades but I have not used that to judge a person in anyway. I judge them all, red, yellow,white, and back by their actions. I was the pres of a college student club and I found out from my female VP the following. My school was 89% black and the black girls would not date the black males from other countries. So even the blacks have a preffference by color within their own race.

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