To: Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights
by Knute Berger
Office of Civil Rights moves to banish "brown bag" and other offensive phrases. Credit: 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.
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