Public information officers for the City of Seattle have been advised they might want to avoid using the terms “brown bag” and “citizen” because some find these words offensive.
KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson couldn’t figure out why these words were being targeted so he asked the man that drafted the memo to the city’s PIO’s for an explanation.
Elliott Bronstein, with the Office for Civil Rights, began by addressing the offensiveness of “brown bag.”
“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.”
Dori, who considers himself a pretty historically and culturally aware person, said he’s never heard of this practice or association and wonders how many others have.
Bronstein also hadn’t heard of it until recently, but as a white man, he said there are likely a lot of aspects to African American culture he wasn’t aware of growing up.
Next, Bronstein had to clue Dori into why “citizen” should be avoided.
“A lot of people who live in Seattle aren’t citizens, but they are residents,” said Bronstein. “They are legal residents of the United States and they are residents of Seattle. They pay taxes and if we use a term like citizens in common use, then it doesn’t include a lot of folks.”
While there may have been complaints about the phrasing, Dori thinks they likely came from people who are too easily offended, and questions the city trying to accommodate all the concerns of this small percentage of people.
“I just think that this obsession with sanitizing our language for the easily offended is a silly pursuit,” said Dori. “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. There just seems to be this steady trend in our region for doing this to language.”
But Bronstein pointed out language is always changing and it’s part of the city’s job to keep up with the realities of a very diverse city.
“We change our language constantly. The very words and phrases you’re using to talk to me now is not the way either of us would have spoken when we were in our 20’s back in the 1970’s,” said Bronstein. “I would say in a community as large as ours in Seattle, we’re talking about a community of African American, white, Latino, and Asian people who all have a stake in using language that doesn’t bug other people.”
Even after the explanation, to Dori – and he thinks the majority of other people – a brown bag remained just a brown bag.