Visualizing Sociology in Everyday Life

6. What do a paper bag and pencils have to do with race?

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What do a paper bag and pencils have to do with race?
photo: Lisa Southwick
What do a paper bag and pencils have to do with race?
photo: Lisa Southwick

In the United States, people of different races have been having children together since at least the 1600s. These children, by definition, are a blend of their parents’ races and cannot belong to just one racial category. Yet, until recently, the United States has insisted that people can legally belong to only one race.

In fact, racial classifications have often been determined in arbitrary ways. At one time in the United States, some churches administered a test using a brown paper bag, permitting only those with skin shades no darker than the bag to enter. Another test involved inserting a pencil into someone’s hair. If the person’s hair texture was such that the pencil fell out, that person was considered white.

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