We have all been subject to “Brown Paper Bag Experiences” when others evaluate us not by our inner selves — but by our outward appearances — and many times they wrongly judge us by jumping to incorrect conclusions. In my article, Coercing Faith, Gordon Davidescu posted this Brown Bag comment:

I think the best analogy (or at least the one I just came up with now) is this: Say you see a person walking down the street with a brown paper bag in his hand. Given New York’s liquor laws you know that he has some sort of alcoholic beverage inside. However, you don’t know if that alcoholic beverage is a beer or wine, or even a wine cooler – unless it is taken out of the bag. Converting is sort of like removing the bottle from the bag. Being Jewish means you have a Jewish Soul – but not everyone with a Jewish Soul hidden in their paper bag realizes that they are Jewish until they take it out of the bag – converting, that is.

Gordon’s comment led me to remember a real life situation — though not as provocative as having a hidden Jewish soul, but perhaps as interesting on a different revelatory human level — when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in the City of New York and I was subjected to my first, and so far only, Brown Bag Bagging.Brown Bag!

I was incredibly ill that day — but not infectious — and I was attending a small dramatic structure workshop class in Dodge Hall back when the building had real character and old-world charm before they ruined its creative personality with an ill-conceived, and ordinary, remodeling job featuring a pea green paint scheme and double pane windows.

I had a giant bottle of orange juice in a brown paper bag and I kept the juice in the bag to keep it cold as I slugged down health-giving swallows.

I began to notice everyone in class was watching me every time I brought the brown bag to my lips to drink my way back to feeling better. They all had their toasted cinnamon bagels and their milked coffees and their mini omelets — but whenever I drank from my bag, the class stopped. Jaws stopped chewing. Throats stopped swallowing.

An icy silence jabbed me with cold eyes. If I had been feeling better I’m sure I would’ve realized quicker what was going on… Finally someone said in a pretend stage whisper, “You know you really shouldn’t be drinking beer in class.” I stared at my accuser for a long time before I understood the dynamic of what she was seeing. I down looked at my brown bag. I looked up at the rest of the class.

The instructor was forcing an uneasy smile into the silence. I slowly wiped the orange juice pulp from my lips and pulled the bottle out of the bag and everyone laughed. My feelings were slightly hurt they thought I was crass enough to get bombed in class. Perhaps my illness had given my gait an uncharacteristic wobble.

The instructor took the situation and made it into a lecture on how to build suspense and surprise and humor in your scenes. All I knew was I wanted to go home and wash the acrid taste out of my mouth leftover from the small betrayals of my fellow cohorts in aesthetics. It was then I realized you aren’t born with respect strong enough to punch your way out of a wet brown paper bag — you only develop strength of character against the instant prejudice of others by revealing the truth of you to disprove the gangland power of misconceptions.


  1. This is where stereo typing and labelling can be so dangerous ( for the want of a better word). It leads us to make assumptions and judgements before we can engage our brains and minds to assertain the real truth.

  2. That’s exactly what’s at play here, Nicola. We too often make assumptions about others based on previous experience and we mark them down in our minds for what are imagined assigned behaviors.
    A brown paper wrapper has a terrible connotation in the USA. It hides booze and pornography. When one arbitrarily applies those community values to people by rote and without forethought, big trouble starts to build.

  3. We are constantly judged by the way we carry ourselves in our brown paper bags.
    I remember reading a suggestion that young people starting their careers should make sure to invest in good suits. The article said that people often won’t take someone young seriously if they aren’t dressed seriously. You might have the ability and the will, but without the clothing, sometimes you won’t get the chance to show either.

  4. Excellent advice, Chris, though I wish we weren’t so superficial to be judged on looks and outerwear alone.
    I know a lot of club owners look at someone’s shoes to determine if they’re “right enough” to get access to their exclusive club. I guess the theory is someone who spends a lot of money on shoes is someone who has money to burn…

  5. My favourite brown paper bag :-
    The lighter side ( or maybe the heavier side in my case ) of this is the fun over the years I have had with male perceptions of what they percieve and assume I should be like and how I should behave as a female dominant.
    Armed with their knowledge gleamed from years of cyber sex and wank fodder websites they have some wonderful assumptions about how female dominants should look and behave.
    These include how I should dress, what I should and shouldn’t do – even to how they should address me.
    These have included :-
    “You shouldn’t drive” ( I should have a slave do it for me – preferably them.)
    “You shouldnt cook ” ( Same reason)
    You shouldn’t wear pyjamas or dressing gowns or (heaven forbid) fluffy slippers. ( ie be real – destroys their image of leather clad amazons)
    We call it the fantasy reality *hit* .

  6. “A brown paper wrapper has a terrible connotation in the USA. It hides booze and pornography.”
    We have the association with both of those – but ironically it now extends to bills – as almost all of our bills now come in plain brown paper envelopes as well.

  7. Hi David,
    It’s interesting how we use external cues to quickly size up a situation and how silly these snap judgments can seem after a little reflection.
    A couple of years ago, a high school in my area banned pink clothing after the feminine color was linked with some sort of gang activity. The paper had stories about young high school girls being sent home to change their sweatshirts and other clothing because they were wearing “dangerous pink.”

  8. It turned out that pink wasn’t associated with gang activity. It was just a popular color with clothing makers. But, having so many kids wearing pink must have meant something bad was afoot!
    Writes Zero Intelligence:

    Gang activity? Gangs wearing pink? Does this actually happen outside of an 1980’s Michael Jackson video? Why is pink being associated with gang activity?
    “There is no evidence of gang activity. But because of the growing use of the color pink we decided to be proactive. Girls and boys are supposed to avoid wearing pink,” (an administrator) said Monday.

  9. Nicola!
    Now that’s interesting! So when your wrapper isn’t what they expect — do they accept you as a dominant or not? Isn’t their fantasy what makes their reality?
    Ack! Brown paper wrapper bills! Now that’s funny!

  10. Hi Chris!
    Love that pink story! You remind me of a ban at my old high school I heard about where gang activity was being perpetuated under the Miami Dolphins colors: Orange, Turquoise and White.
    All Miami Dolphins logos and team wear were banned by the school.
    So the gang began to identity by wearing the three colors in some kind of non-logo denomination in their outfits and that was outlawed.
    Then the gang members began to wear one of the three dominant colors and hang out in groups of three to subvert the ban.
    It quickly became impossible to control the gang associations and the school eventually gave up when another gang in the school began to identify with the Oakland Raiders with Silver and Black dominant colors and the school colors were Black and White!
    The school ended up banning the logos and official teamwear and everything else was left to fester.

  11. That is where the fun comes in – watching them rapidly reprocess .
    Several reactions – the most common one is – yes she is Dominant ( but not the one I thought she was) follwed by quick withdrawl.
    Second is that I am not a “real dominant” – followed by accusations and slanging matches until a third party wades in and says excuse me – do you KNOW who you are talking to? Go check your facts – followed by withdrawl.
    Third is open admission of confusion – followed by discussion.
    I still get letters and emails from those I have encountered along the way from all of the above – along the lines of
    “You may not remember me, but you put me right X years ago and I didnt understand, now I do – thank you very much.”
    I love it when the penny drops !
    Almost all of our bills, and utilities mail comes in brown paper these days. Certainly all our government communication. I think a lot of this is to do with recycling of paper – it recycles better into brown rather than white – saves the bleaching process I think.

  12. Wild, Nicola! I love it!
    So do these men want to be dominated or do they only want the image of their fantasy? How did the stereotype of the dominant female come into being?

    I love it when the penny drops !

    You’re going to have to explain that turn of phrase to me!
    I like the idea of using recycled paper for bills. It’s fitting. I know people who try to print out and work on stuff using recycle paper. That, I don’t like, because it’s hard to read and doesn’t last forever and it certainly isn’t acid free.

  13. They think they want to be dominated – in their fantasies though they are dominated by the stereo type – when confronted by the reality they quite often find it very difficult.
    If you say the penny drops, you mean that you have finally understood something – similar to a light bulb moment – that moment of understanding when you really understand rather than think you do.
    It is though to come from old Victorian slot machines, where a game would only work when the penny had dropped.

  14. Thanks for your wisdom, Nicola! I appreciate your insight into the wants of those who want to be dominated by a stereotype to only later realize perhaps the stereotype holds no meaning when it comes to real people.
    I appreciate your penny dropping explanation. I thought for a moment it might be related to “the other shoe dropping” but that didn’t really make sense in context. Your light bulb analogy is much more on point.

  15. “the other shoe dropping” – as in making the next obvious comment ? – or is there another explanation .

  16. “The other shoe dropping” as in waiting for the next inevitable bad thing to happen.
    He got divorced and how he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop when his wife finds out about his affair.

  17. Glad I asked – there were slightly different interpretations when I looked it up.
    Back to topic – how can we stop crossing the line from using visual signals to identify and then label what we see and making predjudical first impressions? Apart from of course reminding ourselves to double check and THINK!

  18. Hey Nicola!
    I think visual stimulation is ingrained early in our lives as a means of danger recognition. Red is a bad color. Green is a good color. Plain brown wrappers are always hiding something to hide the embarrassments of the truth.
    Then there are those who would argue that entities like Playboy — which used to come in a plain brown wrapper; now it comes in a blain black plastic wrapper — help create misconceptions about beauty and sexuality by providing an idealized sexualization that has no basis in reality.
    Many American boys grow up with the masturbatory ideal that a properly sexualized woman is a tall, thin, blonde, fake-boobed and wearing a come-hither look and an empty mind.
    When reality strikes these young men as they come into sexual maturity, there is a frustrating disconnect and they are left to wonder where their Barbie Doll ideal wife and the Playboy dating fantasy can be found –- while the “real women” are left behind holding the empty brown bag of expectation.

  19. I would account for it as you misreading your own proof, fred.
    Here’s what the link you provide really says and it isn’t what you claim:

    In the present study, although there was no significance found when comparing sex to favorite color choice, blue was chosen more often than any other color by boys and pink was chosen more often than any other color by girls. Red was chosen by boys and girls both as a fourth favorite color choice.

  20. Nicola!
    Ha! I think they moved to black plastic (actually clear plastic with lots of black ink) from brown paper for security reasons and to disable peeking!

  21. I sensed red being a ‘bad’ color after noticing my colleagues’ comments – ‘you look so good in red’/ ‘red looks so good on you’….which is somewhat true because of my darker skin tone.
    I knew red was supposed to be the color of power. Why is it labeled as ‘bad’?
    Pale brown is one of my favorite colors, am I hiding myself under that ‘brown wrapper’? 😀

  22. Hi Katha!
    Red is bad because red means danger. Red lights mean stop. Stop signs are red. Do not do things in traffic signs use a red circle and red gash. When the body responds to infection it turns red. Blood is red. Blood outside the body is bad. Red light districts. Red Devil. Red Communism. Red China. The Cincinnati Reds. Don’t Walk. Scarlet Fever. Red Fever. Bloodshot eyes.
    Ah, your pale brown affection and hiding yourself under a brown wrapper is interesting when we think back to the “Brown Paper Bag Test.”

  23. Hi David,
    My mind has made some scary connections with this red conversation.
    Red China.
    Red Devil.
    The Cincinnati Reds.
    And, what did I just see in Wikipedia? A picture of Marge Schott wearing red. Yikes!!!!
    My vision of red as being sexy has been supplanted by visions of Marge Schott wearing red!

  24. Ha! Well done, Chris!
    I’m glad you got my Cincy Reds joke!
    I forgot to list “A woman in a red dress” before. Now that’s danger! Marge or not!

  25. Love the quote about converting at the top of the page. My bag is stuffed with emotions…check out my blog and let me know what you think!

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