Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Someone totally unqualified to discuess the brown bag lunch issue, who has no clear opinion, weighs in anyway.

This refers to PB's post Brown Bag Lunch.

I should begin here by stating my biases. My primary bias that is relevant to this discussion is that I really hate anything that makes a cause I basically believe in look stupid.

So I will say that my bias at first leads me to question the point of having an issue with the term "Brown Bag Lunch."

Now, what sort of issue Starr King had with the term is a different question. The actual words of Melissa Mummert's article on the issue are:

At an all-school meeting one afternoon, a faculty member announced, "Because of the racist connotations of the phrase brown bag lunch, we will now be using the term BYOL, 'bring your own lunch'

The direction of people's indignation over this issue seems partially to hinge on whether they take "We" to mean "the administration or the people leading this meeting" or "all of Starr King, including you."

I'm going to take on faith that Mummert quoted the announcement accurately and say I find the sentence too ambiguous to make the call, an odd problem for a sentence about language usage to have. The SKSM students who commented on PB's post imply that the speaker just meant she was talking about how the administration was going to talk. To me that begs the question of why announce the change. Just make the change.

I don't get the need to make a big announcement about it, where the racist usage of brown bags must be explained to everyone who hasn't lived in New Orleans.

That sort of reminds me of how I didn't know that Marilyn Monroe died naked until I heard the part of that Elton John song where he complained that people talked about it too much.

The need to make the big announcement has a "Ta-Da! Look how sensitive we are being!" ring to it that strikes me as, well, Sinkford-esque. That said, I sincerely appreciate their not putting out a press release on the issue.

I do have another bias on this issue, though. Call it "live and let live unless people are getting hurt." I really don't care what people call their lunch meetings. If some people find "brown bag" offensive, I really don't mind just letting them have their way. I don't really have a dog in the fight.

As I analyze my thoughts, I'm realizing that the all-school meeting announcement is really what I have an issue with. And I suspect that I'm not alone on this among people who mocked the issue.

If PB, Jeff or anyone else who talked about how stupid it was would care to tell me if I'm alone on this one in the comments, I would appreciate it, but isn't the big announcement really the issue? If someone had quietly pointed out the issue to the administration and they had quietly made the change, would anyone care?

I object to the big announcement for several reasons.

1. It gives the impression that the speaker sees the new policy as some big thing to be proud of, a blow against racism. Do the listeners go home feeling SKSM has done its good deed for the day?

2. It really does sound ridiculous to anyone who hasn't given it thought, and to a fair percentage of people who have. Like people getting fired for using the word "niggardly," which has exactly zero to do with the n-word in meaning or in word origins, or having issues with the word "picnic," which has a widely-believed word origins story that isn't true, I think picking small, silly-sounding linguistic battles is ultimately damaging to a cause. '

3. The ambiguity of the phrasing and the administration's announcement really does imply a certain "we will tell you how to talk" PC bossiness that seems to naturally rankle people.

Anyway, that's where I got on the issue.



PG said...

It's not just a New Orleans thing, though its most opporessive use (i.e. by Whites against Blacks) may have been there. As Philocrites noted in PB's comments, even light skinned African Americans themselves, trying to preserve their own racial privilege, have used the "brown bag test" to assess whether others are our kind of people.

Here is the problem I have with the change from "brown bag lunches" to "bring your own lunch": there are brown bags in the world. I assume no one thinks that the manufacture of such bags should cease. If we have such bags and they are what people bringing their own lunches traditionally carried said lunches in -- with neither the manufacturers nor the users-for-lunch-purposes having ANY racist intent -- then what good does it do to stop using the phrase "brown bag lunch" if the brown bag with lunch inside remains? Even "niggardly" is more problematic because of the potential for misunderstanding. Has anyone ever heard "brown bag lunch" and thought "Oh no, I'm too dark to be admitted"?

I'm probably more pro-PC than 90% of the population, because I consider what is called "political correctness" to be simply a form of good manners in a more diverse society. If there are people who are troubled or hurt by hearing "They wanted to charge $50, but I jewed them down to $25," and the origins of the term were used to hurt people, then absolutely let's stop using the term, even if we currently use it without hurtful intent. It's just good manners to be aware of how others feel and of their preferences and how what we do, even without hurtful intent, can affect them. Taking such terms out of your vocabulary is like not farting in your shared office: a form of consideration for other people.

Current intent is not all that matters. (Cue Ledbetter!) But if there never was any hurtful intent to a word or phrase at all... um, what the hell?

Joel Monka said...

You both have said everything I wanted to, but better- which is hardly surprising, as you are both more articulate than the average bear. (wait- isn't "articulate" a racial slur, too? I can't keep track) I don't see how racist connatations can be conveyed by a word if neither the speaker nor the intended audience is aware of that alternate meaning. In fact, if you Google "brown bag lunch racism", the first thing you get is NOT an explanation of that test, but notices about college "brown bag lunch discussion series" on diversity- the organizers having
evidently never heard of that test either!

Reminds me of an incident a couple years back when one student group's announcement about a picnic was called on racist wording- the complaining members not knowing the true etymology of the word- and so they changed "picnic" to "outing"- which, of course, got more complaints...

Philocrites said...

PG, a clarification: I didn't mean to imply that I had found any evidence of brown paper bags being used by whites to discriminate against African Americans. In fact, that was my point: The only reliable report I could find in my few minutes of research referred to African American discrimination against darker-skinned African Americans. Whites may have used the paper-bag test, but I simply don't know that.

Jeff W. said...

Hi CC, hope you've had a nice week so far. I'm speaking here as someone who has just completed five years of graduate school and thus is sensitive to the relationships as well as the power differentials between students and others in the school. The announcement is part of the problem but not its entirety. Having such an announcement at an all-school meeting, proclaimed "from the pulpit" (so to speak) by a faculty member, gives it the strong implication of being a new compulsory standard for everyone. The pressure is especially strong on the students, who if they were to use the term "brown bag lunch" would have to consider the implications of going against the wishes of people with power over them in the community (and hence over their vocations and future careers as well). Let's not be naive about how such announcements work in UU circles: even if the faculty member only intended to say that certain committees or leaders would no longer say "brown bag," there is clear potential for it to become taboo for everyone, whether or not they supported the move to ban it.

But there are other problems with this incident as well. First is the intellectual drift from "brown bag test" to "brown bag lunch"--so far as I can tell no one has ever used the term "brown bag lunch" to refer to a racist (more accurately, colorist) practice. Brown bag tests and brown bag lunches are two completely separate things. Second, so far as I am aware, brown bag tests have never been employed by UU churches. They most certainly haven't been used at any of the many UU churches I've attended or visited. Most importantly, they have never been used at Starr King. Also, so far as I can tell, using a brown bag to determine who could attend an event and who couldn't was a practice done by some African-Americans against other African-Americans, not something that overwhelmingly white churches like the Unitarians and Universalists ever employed, or had probably even heard of (I'm quite aware of colorism within African-American circles and had never heard of this practice, despite using brown bag lunches my whole life). It also appears that it was mainly a local practice among a subset of African-Americans, maybe just in the New Orleans area, or perhaps (I'm only speculating) more broadly among some area of the Gulf South. All of which begs the question: Why are the mostly white students at a West Coast school that has never used brown bags in a racist way being told that it is inadmissible for some if not all of the community to use an extremely common phrase that includes only part of the offending phrase and is completely unrelated to the alleged racist usage?

OK, I had to stop and go feed the baby. I hope I haven't lost my train of thought too much.

I think can see why this official pronouncement comes off as clearly "silly" or "stupid" to so many UUs who have expressed their displeasure. AR/AO folks who can't anticipate such natural (not racist) reactions and who can't argue rationally for why this is a desirable situation do precious little to advance the cause of ending discrimination. Quite simply, I feel they show a failure of leadership in being willing to make inane-sounding pronouncements but being unwilling to think of how their pronouncements will inevitably be received and consider ways to make their pronouncements convey persuasive rather than dogmatic power.

Such acts of banning brown bag lunches come off as ritualistic, not authentically connected to programs of action that will actively diminish the level of oppression minorities face in America. This is particularly true because no one actually claimed to be harmed by the previous use of "brown bag lunches"--rather, the article seems to say that it was because someone abstractly thought the term might have racist connections that it was rejected. It's as if we've gone from marching in the streets to demand a fulfillment of our deepest principles to sitting around policing each others most benign vocabulary choices. This type of anti-racism drives many allies away and is inherently self-limiting, since many if not most people are unimpressed with movements that worry about whether because someone somewhere else sometimes used a brown bag inappropriately in a different context we now shouldn't refer to brown bags anymore. All these movements end up doing is creating greater strife and polarization within the denomination, as a minority of hardcore AR/AO people dig in and make a much larger mass of unconvinced UUs increasingly wary about the methods and intentions of such ideologies.

But for me, the real horror of this situation was how the author of the CLF article didn't question the pronouncement because she was afraid of being thought racist. This is utterly, dangerously against everything that Unitarianism has been about since the very beginning nearly 500 years ago. As much as we intensely dislike prejudice and as important as the idea of anti-trinitarianism has been for our movement, Unitarianism has not been about social justice or even about strictly unitary notions of God. The driving principle of Unitarianism, from Servetus to today, has been the freedom of personal conscience within our community and use of reasoned discussion rather than dogma in exploring truth. The threat which many UUs perceive, dimly or clearly, in much current AR/AO "work" and react to viscerally is the persistent tendency to move away from those most core values.

AR/AO people in UUism often stake out moral high grounds from which they seem to believe they can survey the rest of the terrain and make sweeping pronouncements for the rest of UUs about what is acceptable and what is not. Often these pronouncements seem trivial or arbitrary, which just adds to the insult, as well as appearing to focus on extreme linguistic nitpicking rather than concrete action to achieve a better world. It is the frequent insistence from many (not all) AR/AO people that others who disagree with the latest pronouncement or with their methods or ideology generally are thereby displaying their ignorance and/or their desire to perpetuate oppression that seems so intensely anti-Unitarian. It is an attack on freedom of conscience, backed up often by resorts to emotion or in-group ideology. The reaction that they get in response has little to do with whether or not someone wishes to work for a non-racist future (a concern of I believe virtually all UUs). Rather, it is against the groupthink and censoriousness that seem to loom in such circles. Any group that acts in such a manner, no matter what its pet concern, will engender such reactions.

CK said...

FWIW, Sean at has said he thinks a guest speaker asked that the name be changed.

Can someone explain AR/AO to me?

Jeff, your last two paragraphs are exactly my concern, which I noted in my reply at ministrare.

I think that if I were a guest speaker at a school in, say, the Netherlands, and I wanted them to rename their local dike because I was offended by the term, they'd have every right to say that they wouldn't, that they were sorry I had been hurt by homophobia, but that "dike" isn't a hurtful term in that context, and never had been.

And that should be the end of it. If I dug in my heels, then, well... I don't think I'd have any legitimate platform to complain.

UUpdater said...

CK - AR/AO = "Anti Racism / Anti Oppression"

CK said...

Thanks, UUpdater--I'd never heard that particular acronym before.

Jeff W. said...

Sorry for using an acronym you weren't familiar with, CK. If you'd grown up in UU youth and young adult circles you would've encountered it many times previously, but it isn't universally used at the "adult" level since AR/AO distribution is uneven nationally. Thanks to UUpdater for setting the record straight.

CK, I thought your example about dikes in the Netherlands was very astute. Thanks for offering it.

Let me just take this chance to say once again, in case anyone missed it, that people who have misgivings about the way in which AR/AO is carried out in many UU circles are not necessarily in any way opposed to the idea of building a nondiscriminatory world. Indeed, I and virtually everyone I know who have expressed misgivings (often at the risk of rhetorical branding by the more extreme AR/AO elements) about it have been involved for years in other activities designed to secure justice for minorities and women. Opposition to the ideological way AR/AO is foisted on many UU communities is in no way equivalent to ignorance of the issues or desire to perpetuate systems of oppression.

Philocrites said...

Off-topic, but worth knowing: There's now a glossary to many of the acronyms that UUs (and the UUA's staff groups) keep inventing.

peacebang said...

CC, thanks. Yes, I did think of the whole "niggardly" controversy when I read about this.

I don't know why someone couldn't have told the story about the past of the brown bags and just let people decide on their own whether or not they would use the term "brown bag lunch." I would still use it, but I would never look at a brown bag the same way again.

Elizabeth said...

I find this whole thing very interesting. Very UU. I think that CC along with several others have done a good job articulating the issues. I have this desire to post on it too, but I feel like the points have been made so I will show some restraint. No use in publicizing this any more! Thanks for the good, articulate, clear thoughts, folks. E

JAMES said...

Just sat down to read Quest and had to jump online. Now I see that you all have so completely covered the topic as I suspected it needed - let me point out another possibility. Rev. Mummert created a straw man argument with her almamater to take the beating. And indeed we got our blood pressure up. I worship regularly with black congregations (more often than once a week on average) I can tell you for sure the phrase brown bag lunch causes much less consternation than the word Juneteenth. The church with college degreed folks has a different spin on why not celebrate Juneteenth than the many churches with no degrees. BUT, Black heritage in Febuary great. Juneteenth is only celebrated at family reunions. These churches all sing traditional gospel but seldom spirituals. How much dialect is proper? The operative phrase is "too black". Juneteenth does not pass the bag test. The whole jail house jive she gave us doen't ring true to this caucasian. To pretend that it might be uncomfortable to discuss race in a UU setting, gives solace to bigots. Rev.M.M. get thee to All Souls DC and get yo rap up to speed. JAMES, Victoria Texas

Ellis said...

"My primary bias that is relevant to this discussion is that I really hate anything that makes a cause I basically believe in look stupid."

Thank you. I agree. I’ve commented on this topic here.

Robin Edgar said...

Oh dear. . .

It looks like Rev. Diane Rollert of the alleged Unitarian Church of Montreal is quite oblivious to the Starr*k raving "brown bag lunch" controversy. ;-)

Straight from the home page of this alleged U*U "Church" -

What's New

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Unitarian Church of Montreal has a wealth of activities; you can just sample or get more involved in this community. In the month of September, you can

Join Rev. Diane Rollert for a new season of Seeking the Sacred in Stories, a brown bag lunch group meeting at noon on September 25th (copies of the story available at the UCM office).

How terribly un-PC of you Rev. Rollert. . .