“Check The Ears”: Making Sure The Baby’s Not Dark

The Brown Paper Test is a 20th century practice of colorism by African Americans who discriminated against persons whose skin tone was not the color of a brown paper bag or lighter.

Meghan Markle and her husband, Harry accused the royal family of racism in an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey. They didn’t name names but the admission alone caused audible gasps from Winfrey. In the interview, Markle says that the royal family discussed whether or not their son Archie, who had not been born yet, would be dark- skinned. If the latter, then there were “concerns.”

Skin tone. Colorism. In addition, the first- time parents learned that their son would not be given a title or security. He would not be protected from racism either. Her admission of a sad reality often whispered about and kept secret reminded me of my own experience– though my family is far from being royal.

My sister had gone into labor prematurely and we had missed the birth.  Excited to meet our newest family member, I rushed to my sister’s recovery room to look into the eyes of the child who had made me an aunt on Christmas day.  By the time I arrived, my mother and her friends were already in the room.  They were looking the new baby over.  As a child, I had seen it done countless times and thought nothing of it.  But now as an adult, the primacy that it took sickened me.  We had discussed the time of her birth, her weight, her beauty and whether she favored her father or mother most.  But then the conversation took an awful turn.

With the same ease taken as when one inspects fruit for purchase, the corners of my niece’s ears were examined to determine the color of her skin.  I was asked to come and see for myself whether she would be light or dark- skinned.  I recoiled.  I didn’t want a hand in this death of individuality.  Right before my eyes, my niece was being transformed from a baby to a black baby.

The women who gathered around her were not checking for ten fingers and ten toes.  Ensuring that all that was needed to sustain life was in place and functioning properly was not their aim.  Eyes that initially glistened with delight at the announcement of her birth quickly turned to microscopic lenses.  Hands that had held her close now pulled and turned her body to get a better view.  The gleeful laughter had turned to whispers.

These dark- skinned older women checked her ears and now huddled together with fingers pressed to their lips, deciding amongst themselves whether she would be light- skinned or dark- skinned.  Not enough time had passed to determine the “grade” of her hair because it all “started out good.”  But even if it wasn’t good, they determined that it could be permed.  The texture of her hair was the least of their worries.

No, what was more important was the color of the edges of her ears.  Because it is believed that if the corner of the ears is dark upon birth, the child will be dark- skinned.  And whatever reason, this was not the desired outcome.  I sat in one corner of the room, wanting to look away but unable to.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.

Then there was a joyful sigh of relief by the women at the consensus that she would be light- skinned.  They spoke as if there had been a health scare.  The doctors had taken tests and come back to the room to report that she had not been afflicted.  We had dodged a bullet, avoided a major setback and in some strange way, her life had been spared.

Small talk followed about her being a “heartbreaker” and her father’s need to purchase a shot gun to keep the boys away.  They had determined she would have a life of ease, not complicated by the limitations of a darker complexion.  She had also escaped the compound curse of being “black and ugly.”  She was called pretty.  She was called perfect.  She was “going to be something” because of the color of her skin.  Race would not only establish society’s treatment of her, but it had determined the perceptions of her own family.

I wanted to scream at the women in the room, “She has just arrived!  Don’t expose her to race.  She is too young.”  But no one would understand or appreciate my concern and I barely understood it myself.  I fell back in my chair and on the excuse that this is what has always been done.   

I convinced myself not to speak, believing my words would have been dismissed as those belonging to one who still had much to learn about the world and its workings.  I’d figure it out sooner or later.  And what else did I have to offer?  What other identity did I have to give her?  I didn’t know who my niece would be, but I knew that I didn’t want her to be black.

“Isn’t it true?  Doesn’t it matter?” they would have asked.  But for me, these were not right the questions.  Instead, I wondered, “What makes it true?  What makes the separation of human beings into light and dark as if loads of laundry necessary?  Why this tradition of sorting people out?”

It was my desire to provide my niece with a description of herself without using color, to see without the social prescription of race and to exist outside of its boundaries that caused me to begin this search.  But it would soon become my own.  I didn’t want to be black either.  I was simply tired of being black, fed up with existing in social darkness.

So, I resolved from that day in my sister’s hospital room to remove myself from race.  I would sit back and watch it work in life, determine speech, influence behavior and arrange relationships.  Often, I have had to check my ears, astounded by what persons will say not only about others but also themselves to somehow justify the existence of or accommodate the presence of race.  I want to ask, “Do you even hear yourself?”

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Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and most authentic expression, I am the principal architect of a race/less world.

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