FREE SPEECH WATCH

City of Seattle is discouraging the use of offensive language few seem to find offensive

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

big-brother-1984In an apparent example of political correctness taken to an extreme, the City of Seattle is now advising its public information officials against the use of the phrases “brown bag” and “citizen,” arguing they have negative connotations for minority groups.

According to a memo sent out from Elliott Bronstein of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, the term “citizen” excludes legal residents who may not be U.S. citizens, while “brown bag” allegedly reminds African Americans of old practices of judging skin color.

“For a lot of particularly African American community members, the phrase brown bag does bring up associations with the past when a brown bag was actually used, I understand, to determine if people’s skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event or to come into a party that was being held in a private home,” Bronstein explained to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.

Though Bronstein strongly defended his position, he stated the Office’s advisement is a suggestion for people who regularly communicate with the public rather than a legal ban on the phrases.

In response, Monson explained he did not see the problem with the phrases and acknowledged that though there might have been complaints, the offensiveness of the terms was negligible at most.

“This comes closely on the heels of a law that was just implemented, I believe this last weekend, where we’re changing manhole covers to person-hole covers and we can’t call a fireman a fireman anymore,” Monson said to Bronstein. “There just seems to be this steady trend in our region for doing this to language.”

Monson was referring to a previous vote by Washington’s State Legislature to replace certain gender-specific terms with more gender-neutral ones in public records.

Monson does not appear to be alone. The new policies elicited confusion and ridicule with some argue is an arbitrary selection of words with only weak connections to bigotry. Conservative commentators immediately launched criticisms of Bronstein’s advisement as an example of political correctness running out of control, with radio personality Glenn Beck arguing it was an overreaction and distraction by city officials looking for ways to be offended.

Others suggest Bronstein has at least historic backing for his claims. Scholars such as Audrey Elisa Kerr and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have documented instances where paper bags were used by light-skinned blacks to screen attendees for acceptability at parties, fraternity and sorority functions and other social events.

Hence, the bags did have historic significance as symbols of exclusion between light and dark skinned individuals, with Kerr describing brown bags as “both a source of pride and an objectionable taboo” within African-American communities.

It remains to be said just how much people identify such common terms with prejudice and, by extension, whether this policy will serve any real use. Ultimately, though, it seems likely that most will come to see a brown bag as just a brown bag.