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Seattle Official Suggests Not Using “Offensive” Phrase “Brown Bag”– And There’s Some History Behind It

Submitted by on August 3, 2013 – 8:07 amOne Comment

Seattle is the subject of howls of derision today as news spread that a government official suggested not using the word “citizen” or the phrase “brown bag” because they might be offensive. And while the idea does smack of political correctness gone awry, as usual, the blogosphere has exaggerated what happened while ignoring the (slight) reasoning behind it.

Headlines like “City officials urge ban on ‘potentially offensive’ language” and “Seattle removes offensive words ‘citizen,’ ‘brown bag’ from vocabulary” are either misleading or outright false. First of all, it was not the whole city, or even a handful of officials- the articles cite only a single employee of the Office of Civil Rights. And the words have not been “removed” from usage in the city, nor did the memo seem to urge any official action- it only suggested that employees internally refrain from using the words.

With illegal immigration still a hot button issue, the inclusion of “citizen” is easier to understand- not to mention that citizenship is not the only legal status for US residents. In a radio interview, the author of the memo, Elliott Bronstein, said he just wanted to be inclusive of legal resident non-citizens with the language.

But the suggestion of “brown bag” left many even sympathetic persons scratching their heads. What could be offensive about that phrase? It refers to the color of a paper bag often used to carry a lunch. End of story. Right?

Well, not exactly. As Bronstein pointed out, the phrase “brown bag party” or “paper bag party” once referred to an event in the mid-part of the century where black people were admitted only if their skin were as light as a brown bag or lighter. According to Wikipedia, it was predominantly a New Orleans phenomenon, and has been discussed by prominent academics like Michael Eric Dyson.

Still, has anyone bringing their lunch from home ever used the phrase “brown bag” derogatorily? Do “a lot” of African-Americans, as Bronstein suggests, really take offense to this seemingly practical expression? It seems this offensive usage has spread farther and faster with this controversy than it ever did on its own.

Apparently, the use of “brown bag” caused an identical stir in the Unitarian Universalist community back in 2007. As one writer said then, “ I really hate anything that makes a cause I basically believe in look stupid.”

What do you think? Should the words be avoided? Was the whole situation exaggerated?

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