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August 20, 2014, 12:49 am

‘Paper bag test’ scrutinized in TV series

"Colorism," one of the most profound issues that has faced the Black community for centuries,, is the topic of "Who is Black in America?" the fifth installment of Soledad O'Brien's "Black in America" series, airing Dec. 9 at 8 p.m on CNN.

In this must-see documentary filmed largely in Philadelphia, Yaba Blay, assistant teaching professor for Africana studies at Drexel University, defines colorism as "a system in which light skin is more valued than dark skin," adding that it is "an expression of white supremacy" that causes "identity issues" for light-skinned individuals and "self-esteem" issues for dark-skinned folks.

That concept is explored through the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement conducted by biracial poet Perry DiVirgilio, known artistically as "Vision." While closely observing the trials of budding poets Becca Khalil and Nayo Jones, also biracial, he candidly shares some of his own close encounters with colorism.

Jones, who is fair and wears her hair in kinky curls, is easily identifiable as African-American, but because she grew up with her white father in an exclusively white environment, says, "I don't really feel Black. I don't in my soul feel like that's just what I am. I feel like it's a part of me. But it's not everything."

On the other hand, Becca, who traditionally would be characterized as "light-skinned with 'good' hair," embraces her "Blackness," but says that she is often the victim of racial profiling because she "looks Arabic." However, Safiya Wshington, an intelligent ’round-the-way girl from Philly maintains that her own deep complexion makes her race immediately identifiable, while Becca is allowed to "choose" her race.      

What is most compelling in this fascinating film are the spoken sentiments of Black schoolchildren who don't want to be dark-skinned “because it's "ugly." In a painful conversation with her mother, one little girl who can't be more than six years olr is nearly driven to tears as she complains bitterly about her velvety brown skin.

"Who is Black in America?" provides an in-depth analysis of colorism, exploring the "one drop" rule and the "paper bag test" as O'Brien examines the "provocative questions": can someone really choose their own racial identity? Who gets to define "Whiteness" or "Blackness?" and what does "Black" look like in America in 2012? "Who is Black in America?" will re-air at 11 p.m. on Dec.15, and video excerpts, poetry from the Philadelphia workshop and other materials related to the documentary may be found at


Contact Entertainment Reporter Kimberly C. Roberts at (215) 893-5753 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .