Debate Magazine

Political Correctness: ‘Brown Bag,’ ‘citizens’ Are out at Seattle City Hall

Posted on the 01 August 2013 by Eowyn @DrEowyn


Seattle PI: Public affairs officers at Seattle city agencies were advised in a recent memo that use of the phrases “brown bag” and “citizens” are potentially offensive, and that the words must be chosen.

“Luckily, we’ve got options,” Elliott Bronstein of the Office for Civil Rights wrote in a missive entitled “On ‘brown bags, ‘citizens’ and language”.

“For ‘brown bag,’ try ‘lunch-and-learn’ or ‘sack lunch,’” wrote Bronstein. “For ‘citizens,’ how about ‘residents?’ (Our Citizens Service Bureau became the Customer Service Bureau a few years ago.)  Just thought I’d bring this up.  Language matters, and the city has entrusted us with the keyboards.”

What could be the offense of using “brown bag” or “citizens,” especially having witness Mayor Mike McGinn’s special pleasure at the swearing in of new U.S. citizens at the Seattle Center on Independence Day.

“This issue came up in one of the departments and I thought I’d send it around as an fyi for your consideration.  We often use the expression ‘brown bag’ to designate a bring-your-own lunch time event.  We also use the word ‘citizens’ as a synonym for ‘residents.’

“Innocuous phrases, right?  Mm, not so much for. For some people, the phrase ‘brown bag’ calls up ugly associations with use of the expression ‘brown bag’ to determine if people’s skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event, a home, etc.

“‘Citizens’ is a different case:  We sometimes use it as another way of saying ‘members of the public’ — except for all the members of the public who aren’t actually citizens but who live and work here.”

Asked on Wednesday how the issue of ‘”brown bag” and “citizens” came up, Bronstein answered:  “Boy, I don’t remember who raised it.  It has come up now and again in the past.”

“The term ‘brown bag’ doesn’t bother everybody, but . . . there is a history behind use of it,” he added.  “It is something easy to correct because there are alternatives.”

In Bronstein’s view, there are “a lot of normal terms once used as ‘normal’ that are not used so much any more.”  He cited, as example, the term “gyp” as a synonym for an attempt to cheat someone.  “I never realized until recently that it was shorthand for ‘gypsy’.”

City government has rightfully embraced all those who live within boundaries of the Emerald City.  Indeed, the Mayor’s office has lately explored with King County the possibility of finding a way to give  “permanent residents” the right to vote in local and municipal elections.

Language DOES matter — witness the recent excesses of Rush Limbaugh and various Fox News hosts — but isn’t the Office for Civil Rights trolling the far parameters of political correctness?  With McGinn’s new emphasis on social justice as a prerequisite to right-of-way decisions, can businesses locating here expect to be asked to adopt the nomenclature of “Residents” rather than “Citizens”?


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