The paper bag test has been used to separate black people into two categories – those lighter that a paper bag, and those darker. People darker than a paper bag were welcome in certain clubs, those lighter were sorted to others. I remember thinking, “Which paper bag are we using?” when I first heard about the test. I wanted to belong but I knew that, regardless of which bag was used, there would always be a certain mismatch, and plenty of labels, names, and false categories to go around.

As a bi–racial woman in the States, the word race has always had a question mark next to it in my mind. I am a light-skinned version of my mother’s dark honeyed face. In my minds eye, I have her coloring. Looking in the mirror has always caused me pause, and sometimes pain, because I do not match the self of my minds eye. No matter. I’ve been taught that race is a social construction, and my role in the world is to blur and reblur the lines as an artist, teacher, friend, mother, and person in the world.

This brings with it such fatigue. Must I again explain that I am not as you perceive me? Usually not quite of the background you assumed when looking at my skin? Yes. I will explain again. I see myself as a black woman, as the daughter of my mother, regardless of how you see me. The color of my skin tells various stories depending on who does the looking, and the telling.

This piece attempts to develop a complex dialog about skin tone and stereotypes in contrast with what is often a shallow and reductive conversation in our culture. It also offers the possibility of reclaiming and redefining the language we use to construct the categories of race. My goals with this piece are to engage people in thinking about how we use words to describe, imply and evaluate race, to ask them to reflect on how they see their own skin tone and the skin tones of others, and to present race as a social, as opposed to scientific, construction.

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