the paper bag project: airen

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In the past couple of years, I’ve been experiencing problems with colorism within my age group. I would say between the ages of 21 and 24, establishing who you’re going to be, who you’re going to spend time with, and what you’re going to do when you go out. I live in Washington D.C., so it’s a very vibrant place to party, and there are so many options when it comes to going out.

My most recent experience was at Howard University’s homecoming. I was going out with one of my friends, and my friend is brown skinned. She’s very smart, quirky, and she and I just have a good time together. I invited another one of my friends, another brown skinned young lady who is also very smart and well traveled, both women are really great people to be around, they’re my cup of tea. I have a few other friends who I would say are more girly, fairly lighter, and have nice shapes. If we all go out together as a group, we’re definitely head turners. One of those friends has freckles and curly hair, and she also came with her brother and some of his friends. When we all met up, she told me that her brother had turned his nose up at my brown skinned friends, I guess because they weren’t the type of girls he wanted to be surrounded by. We ended up splitting up, and I went to grab something to eat with my lighter friend. She told me, “Don’t be mad, but my brother wanted to split up with us because of the two girls you brought with you. You need to hang out with bad bitches at all times.” So I thought about it, and I ended up hanging out with her and the girls she invited, when I knew that I genuinely wanted to hang out with the two people that I invited. When I was with the “head turners” we just kind of stood around and just looked at each other. Some of the girls didn’t really speak to me, I felt out of place. I started to reflect on colorism, and I thought is it really worth it to try and place yourself in a circle with girls that look a certain way? It may be beneficial if I’m going out, but is it really wroth sacrificing hanging out with friends I have SO MUCH fun with? That’s not to say that one group is more fun than the other, but for what I gave up, I don’t know if it was worth it.

My Mom is very light and has curly hair, as well as a lot of other people in my family. Growing up, I kind of resented the fact that I was brown and that my hair didn’t feel like theirs, and it wasn’t curly “swimmers hair”. I struggled trying to fit in with my Mom, and tried to make sure I was always cute like her other friends’ daughters. When I was younger, people would assume my hair was a wig because they were super perplexed as to how a black girl could have long hair. I first experienced colorism in middle school. The first woman I compared myself to was my Mom, and also the Latina girls that went to my school.

I want to reject the idea of colorism because I want to be a black queen and embrace my color and embrace my hair texture. Normally, I wear my hair out in a fro, and I just feel so free and so liberated. The only reason I wear weaves is because I feel the style is more appropriate in a work setting. If I had it my way, I would just wear a bush everyday, and just be super black and speak about black issues, and just always be that one person that speaks from a black perspective. Another thing was actually learning about my hair texture, and what works best for it.

What makes me beautiful is my ability to inspire others. People say that my drive and ambition is bigger than me. You can see God within me, and I can impact and bless the lives of others.

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the paper bag project: gabby

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I grew up in an area of Michigan called “Beverly Hills” right outside of Detroit, which was predominately white, Jewish, and upper class. I was one of four black people. There, I felt like I fit in. Ironically, when I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and I was surrounded by more African American kids, I felt more like an outsider. That’s where I started focusing on my skin tone more, and how I was looked at or how I felt when I walked into a room. The black guys would say they “only date white girls” and it was something that made me really look at the perception of women in the black community. When I got to South Carolina, I stopped trying to fit in. In Michigan, I always tried to dress like everyone else, and it wasn’t me. In Columbia, I was new, it was the last two years of high school, and I dressed more like myself, and I definitely stood out. I was one of the few people that wore my hair natural, and inspired other kids to wear their hair natural; I started a fashion club there. All you can do is be yourself. When I tried to fit in, I didn’t like who I was. I thought, there’s more to the world than these kids.
Colorism causes division because it kind of limits you as far as what color clothing you can wear, what makeup you can wear, and it creatively puts you in a box. I love fashion magazines, I love fashion, and I want to be able to say as black women, we can be high fashion too. Because I love the way that we have ESSENCE, but I look at their editorials, and it doesn’t really reflect something creative or something out of the box, it doesn’t really reflect OUR creativity. It’s like oh here’s us wearing high fashion clothes, I want it to be like W Magazine, I love it. Black people are so creative; everyone else always copies our creativity. What really broke the mold for me was my sister, who is a makeup artist, telling me “Black contains all the colors of the rainbow, so you can wear anything, Gabrielle.” She gives me her makeup sometimes and tells me to wear the bright colors because my skin is perfect for it. The division makes us scared to be colorful, and I used to be scared, but now I embrace it. We shouldn’t be kept small, we’re supposed to blossom, we’re supposed to grow. Division also teaches us that we can’t be loved, that we can’t FIND love. This rapper is dating this type of woman, and actors like THESE type of women, and you don’t see women like ME falling in love on TV. That’s why I love Issa Rae, she looks like me, she wears her hair natural, and she doesn’t fit a stereotype. The way she approaches life is the way I approach life. Her show “Insecure” on HBO proves to me that we are getting out of the box!
My Mom is lighter skinned and when I was little I would tell her “You’re not black, you’re orange!” It didn’t really hit me until middle school, when an older man said “You must look like your Dad because you look nothing like your Mom.”  I thought it was so ignorant of him, because how did he know I wasn’t adopted, and that comment could have triggered a painful past memory? How could a grown black man, also of a darker complexion, say something like that to a young girl? The earliest experience I can remember was in elementary school, when I was outside playing with my lighter skinned friend and she said, “You don’t have to worry about burning because you’re already dark.” There were already so few black people at our school, I was shocked that she would say that. We shouldn’t be turning against each other. It offended me so much. I didn’t understand why yet, but I knew I didn’t like how I felt.
I want to do away with the paper bag ideal because everyone’s doing it. I never wanted to be like everyone else. I was always different. My Mom always told me “You’re not gonna be like everyone, you were born different, you were raised different, you have a different calling in your life. Also, recently I’m very inspired by Lupita Nyong’o, Solange Knowles, and Michelle Obama being in the spotlight. They look like me, they have a body similar to mine, there’s no reason to hide. I want us to come out more, I want us to be ourselves.
What makes me beautiful is my spirit. Actually, I would say God makes me beautiful. When I center my life around Him, I feel balanced. His light shines in me, and I have to make sure I allow that light to shine and not let myself get in the way of it. If I’m upset, my family can see it. They ask, “What are you eating spiritually?” I usually have a glow, and it’s God shining through. I’m a Christian, so I try to serve God’s purpose for me. You can put on all the makeup you want, but if you’re not beautiful inside, it won’t shine through. I always try to be aware of what’s going on inside of me, because I want to portray God.

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the paper bag project.

As a makeup artivist, a makeup artist who uses her medium to inspire positive social changes, my passion is to use makeup and photography to share women’s stories with the world. In many cultures, women are taught to mask their beauty rather than enhance it. I strive to educate women on all the different ways to celebrate their individuality, and then capture their confident smiles on camera.

With the paper bag project, I will be interviewing women all over the world to hear their stories about dealing with colorism. Colorism is a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982, and is a form of prejudice in which an individual’s social status depends solely on their skin tone. I have named this photo series “The Paper Bag Project”, inspired by the paper bag test administered in the early 1900’s. This test was given to “measure” whether or not someone was worthy enough to gain entry into a specific establishment or organization. If your skin was lighter than the bag, you were accepted.

My goal is to raise awareness by creating a safe space to share these women’s experiences, and to bring a sense of unity amongst all people by educating them. Whether their skin is lighter or darker than the bag, they are all beautiful and each posses a unique gift to share with their community. It’s time to educate ourselves on the similarities of all our stories so that we can use our voices to silence this painful memory.

Peace and Love,
Dayna Marie

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