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To: Seattle's Office of Civil Rights

Re: the classist, oppressive, war-mongering, bullying, offensive name of your agency.
Office of Civil Rights moves to banish "brown bag" and other offensive phrases.

Office of Civil Rights moves to banish "brown bag" and other offensive phrases. privatenobby/Flickr

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights has suggested to city public information officers that the terms "brown bag" and "citizen" not be used because the first is racist and might be offensive to African Americans and the second doesn't apply to equally to everyone, such as all the non-citizens in town.

They had to speak up. These offensive, disrespectful terms are used throughout City Hall. Mayor Mike McGinn has often invited reporters to "brown bag" lunches and public employees are forever trying to help "citizens." What. Were. They. Thinking?

The mayor is working to make Seattle the "Most Progressive City in America," but these revisions don't go far enough. Take, for example, the Office of Civil Rights itself. The name is a huge problem in terms of sensitivity.

First, the term "office" implies the superiority of people with a job and an indoor workplace. Do they mean that those of us who don't go to an office have less authority, less worth, less value as people? What about people who work outdoors, or at home? Don't they know that many, many workers and non-workers are officeless in Seattle? And where is this city's 10-year-plan to end officelessness? The word office makes me ask, "What's next? Are they going to execute those of us who don't wear ties or share bad sheet cake with our co-workers in the break room?" In this time of high unemployment, the term "office" is classist and oppressive and carries Wall Street overtones. Worst, it mocks the un-cubicled.

And "civil" — there's a suspect term with negative connotations. Did you know we fought a divisive "civil" war? It was nasty and racist, and some people insist it isn't over. Why dredge up associations with war and misery, of millions dead, wounded and made homeless (and officeless) by conflict. "Civil" smacks of war mongering and I don't think that's the kind of image the most Progressive City in American needs, quite frankly.

And then there's "civil disobedience." Disobedient is what a bad dog is. Are we disobedient, officeless dogs who need to be smacked with a rolled up newspaper? Where does the city get off suggesting such things? Call the DOJ because we obviously need PC police reform!

Last, there's the term "rights." Which is one half of "rights and wrongs." By claiming to have "rights" on their side, the "office" people are, by implication, suggesting the rest of us are *wrong*. They seem to be saying that what's right rests with them and them alone in their cozy little exclusive office. And we know the expression, "might makes right." People who talk about rights are clearly, blatantly adopting the philosophy of bullies.

So, you might say "Office of Civil Rights," and think, hey, that sounds like a good thing. But for the truly sensitive, it could be code for We-Have-a-Job-and-You-Don't, You-Disobedient-Bad-Dogs-That-We're-Bullying-Around.

Elliott Bronstein of the Office, who raised the subject of words in his memo, was quoted as saying that, "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."

If the Office of Civil Rights really wants to express itself "using language that doesn't bug other people," they could change their name to something less oppressive, and maintain a discrete silence.

 

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 7 a.m. Inappropriate

Brown Bag and citizen - oh boy I am sure glad our fearless leaders have the major problems under control that they can waste time and taxpayer dollars on these important issues.

I like the statement regarding PC
"PC is thinking one can pick a turd up by the clean end"

LAST BUT NOT LEAST for the umpteenth time (and I never received a response yet) GET RID OF THE RECAPTCHA

leitmotif

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I sure hope this was written as satire. Otherwise, Knute Berger, whose name I've seen repeatedly but haven't read until now, is a complete yoyo. The word-by-word dissection of "Office of Civil Rights" is one of the most irrational things I've ever read. "Civil" conjures up the Civil War? Maybe if the person reading it is a moron. Some of us don't have offices? Really? I had NO IDEA!

If it is satire, it's pretty much a wasted effort. Not funny, not really relevant to the issue, and misses any satirical mark by a country mile. OF COURSE this issue is ridiculous. I'm a lifelong liberal, dyed in the freakin' wool, and it makes me cringe. This is nothing less than the Left's version of all the Right-wing straw-man "issues" - like flag burning and gay marriage - that politicians raise to make themselves A) look good to the extreme elements of their parties and B) appear to be taking action. The fact that the "action" is meaningless and juvenile appears not to matter. "Citizen" is now a "problem word"? Puh-leeeeeze. I think the actual problem word in Seattle, these days, is "McGinn".

SteveBody

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Steve Baby, Take a deep breath. When the road to serious thought gets long and tedious, a Modest Proposal is still fully capable of knocking some sense into the overly serious.

afreeman

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear Knute--interesting perspective. You might want to check the usage on "discrete", though. Discreet?

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Joel Connelly helpfully points out that it is technically the Office *for* Civil Rights. Don't get me started on the offensiveness of the word "for!"

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice catch on discrete/discreet and thanks! And btw, tell me this really isn't true. Because if it is, it is time for me to leave the city. And I was a civil rights enforcement attorney for the US Department of Justice. This is total rubbish. Get rid of those people now and get someone in the office that will work on the real issues of racism and discrimination that exist in this country.

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

The bag should be clear because we want transparency in government.

DG

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

I think I know how to help the Seattle budget; close the SCOC (Seattle City Office for Comedy.)

Whoever came up with this idea has a truly warped sense of humor, “let’s make Seattle the laughingstock of the media!” For all of us wage slaves out there, (perhaps “oppressed masses that toil everyday for their meager pittance” is better,) a brown bag is what we use. This contraption, made of paper, commonly called a bag, is usually brown. Unless, our pittance allows us to purchase some form of wheat and sugar from a bakery which then may allow our bag to be white. Not caucasian or some other skin tone, just white.

I always thought of a brown bag as a sign of our station in life: Able to afford a noonday meal, but never prosperous enough to afford eating at the company cafeteria or some such other purveyor of prepared food which is usually prepared and served by oppressed underpaid people. I always thought of the brown bag as a symbol of unity with the rest of the lesser class.

As for citizen: Webster defines it as: “An inhabitant of a particular town or city.” I guess the SCOC wants us all to feel apart from this city, not an inhabitant, but something less.

I want a job like this, writing jokes, really bad jokes, for the City of Seattle, with all the perks like not having to carry a brown bag or even know what a brown bag is all about.

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I thought this was funny and a possible waste of time until someone told me that they ARE offended by the phrase "brown bag" in that it brought up stories told by a parent of how anyone darker than a brown bag wouldn't get hired.

Maybe a little investigation into why the Office for Civil Rights named these two terms and why Seattle needs an Office for Civil Rights might have made this story/joke(?) a little more balanced.

Amaliada

Posted Mon, Aug 5, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

These were suggestions. They were not fiats or rules. Just suggestions. Why not look at the suggestions and ask and learn why these were suggested? I certainly did. Being white, I had no idea that brown bags were used in the past to judge people as in the club or out. I think more of Seattle needs some lessons from Jon Greenberg. Too bad he won't be at The Center school anymore.

Rhonwyn

Posted Tue, Aug 6, 3:58 p.m. Inappropriate

I suppose "cracker" is already on the verboten list. How about "frogs"? they probably missed that one. Preserving those vertebrates might not be so easy if they have to be called nocturnal amphibians.

kieth

Posted Tue, Aug 6, 4:07 p.m. Inappropriate

"Beige Bag," perhaps?

Mannix

Posted Tue, Aug 6, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

It's obvious that these people don't have enough to do. How about putting them to work fixing potholes with beige asphalt?

NotFan

Posted Sun, Aug 11, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Funny piece, Skip! I've been reading some of these comments, and I think it's time for a column disspelling the local believe that irony is a metal.

rorric1

Posted Sun, Aug 11, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute, as always (almost), is quite droll and makes for a good and thought provoking read.

Refuting him point by point is not only pointless, but also not worth our collective time: but I do have a few points which I will keep short, period.

The 'Civil' part of the Civil War is not a very worthwhile term to pick on - depending on where you hail from, that war is more commonly referred to as 'The War of Northern Aggression', so dissecting the use of the term 'Civil' requires a broader brush than is relevant in the article. But it did raise an interesting question in my mind: what descriptive term was and is commonly used by the people of color who lives were and still are affected by that conflict?

'Office' is derived from Latin, and so it is an ancient term. If one takes the time to follow its etymology, one would realize that the use of the word is perfectly ok since it doesn't necessarily mean a place where one can gather around the water cooler, but really refers to work. Perhaps we could settle for the term 'Opus'?

I do suggest that the word 'of' is a completely wrong choice - the term should be 'for'. Active versus passive grammar.

But, all else being said, there is a basic common good that comes out of recognition that the City designate, establish, and operate a specific section of the City government that focuses on just, equitable and action oriented support for the diversity of people who are in Seattle.

todrodman

Posted Mon, Aug 12, 2:22 p.m. Inappropriate

The fact there are those who wish to defend the office for taking to task the term "brown bag" only increases my wonder as to whether seattle is governable or is so full of disagreeable, humorless political robots that it makes me want to gag. Really, it there real person, anybody out there who sees that term as objectionable?

neonative

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