"The Pencil Test" (and other "Blackness" tests)
This past February, I posted about Black History Month and my feeling of disconnect from U.S. Black history (as, to my knowledge, my Black heritage is still in Africa). Since then, that feeling has become history.
A few days after I posted my “I’m not Black” post, I attended the memorial of a young, biracial Black adoptee. His memorial was held at a local bar at which he’d once served as security.
As the atmosphere filled with music and reminiscing, I chatted with a Black friend about my Black History Month mental conundrum. I’d always looked up to her, and her insight around this topic blew my mind. She reminded me that Black history is a global movement and not just limited to Black people in the U.S. She opened my brown eyes to prejudices beyond the “one drop” rule (if you haven’t read my “I’m not Black” post, I’ll remind you of the racially-biased “rule”: if you have at least one drop of Black in your blood, you’re Black).
Nothing quite prepared me for the other “rules” for or “tests” of “Blackness” that my friend was about to share, as she chipped away at my naïveté.
One example she shared was the “brown paper bag” test. The “parameter” for this tone-based “test” held that if you were darker than a standard brown paper bag (the melanin-measured “middle” between white and Black), you’d be denied entrance into certain social institutions, public places, and even colleges. The basis of the test was founded on the prejudicial belief that “light skin is a marker of intellectual, cultural, social, and personal superiority-over and above darker people”. It was a colorist way of creating a racial hierarchy.
White communities weren’t the only brown bag testers. Certain Black communities also used the test to exclude anyone lighter than a brown paper bag from their “fraternities, sororities, churches and social clubs throughout the 20th century.”
As skin color continued to divide the Black community, some lighter-skinned Black people formed their own exclusive social clubs. They created “Blue Vein Societies.” Acceptance into these societies was based on the blue vein “test”: if someone was light enough to see the blue veins through their skin, they “passed.”
Another example my friend shared was South Africa’s “pencil test.” This was a measurement used by the
government to “decide who was white enough to be profiled as white and who was black or nonwhite.” The “test” involved putting a pencil in a person’s hair, asking the person to shake their head, and “[i]f the pencil…fell out, he or she was categorized as white.”
Sitting here today, with my liberal arts education and a master’s degree, I feel sorely (and embarrassingly) undereducated. It makes my heart sink for our educational system and for the many who have suffered and their under- and misrepresentation.
Through all of the many courses I’ve taken, I was tested, but I was never tested on racial biases and bigotry to a thorough degree. I was never taught how the color of my skin connected me to the national or global Black community. It’s not easy to admit that, but it’s true. And I have a lot of catching up to do.
In the wake of the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others, former first lady, Michelle Obama, voiced, “It's up to all of us—Black, white, everyone—no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting [racism] out.”
I now have a better understanding of how Black history is my history. It’s our history. It’s everyone’s history. And, yes, it’s also, unfortunately, our present. As Obama (the queen), said, it’s “uncomfortable,” but there’s no change or progress without discomfort. And the world needs to change and evolve in order to ease the pain caused by racism. It may never go away, but it needs continuous work and attention (by everyone).
To be honest, the realities of racism are scary, as a Black woman. That said, I am dedicated to embracing the discomfort and from a place of necessity, self identity, and also hope. Are you?
As always, thank you for listening.