Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anti-racism: brown bag lunches are racist?

I missed an anti-racist brouhaha in the Unitarian-Universalist blogosphere in 2007: Melissa Mummert reported:
My seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry, had a program called "Educating to Counter Oppressions." The faculty and students took the work to destroy racism and all of the "isms" that plague us quite seriously. 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'."
Brown bags have a place in the history of US racism. From Discrimination based on skin color: "The "brown paper bag test" was a ritual once practiced by certain African-American and Creole fraternities and sororities who discriminated against people who were "too dark." That is, these groups would not let anyone into the sorority or fraternity whose skin tone was darker than that of a paper lunch bag, in order to maintain a perception of standards. Spike Lee's film School Daze satirized this practice at historically black colleges and universities."

But if "brown bag lunch" has any connotation, it's classist: brown paper bags are the cheapest lunch bags. Claiming "brown bag lunch" is racist is like arguing cotton T-shirts celebrate slavery.

The Left Coast Unitarian defended the announcement:
For me the actual matter of dispute is fairly simple. If a person of color, especially an elder, suggests that a particular term is not the most inviting way to title or describe a gathering, I will take them at their word absent a good deal of evidence.
I suspect the LCU didn't think that through: I've never met an anti-racist who accepts the opinion of Rev. Thandeka or Adolph Reed Jr. or any person of color who disagrees with anti-racism theory—that's doubly true in the case of conservative critics like Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr.

Tom Schade replies to LCU in a post I highly recommend:
In order to raise these questions, which could conceivably require more research and reflection, one has to be able to hold as a possible answer: this fact about brown bags is interesting, but essentially unimportant. But in an intellectual environment where the value of information is determined by who provides it, such criticism is not welcome. The only question really allowed, is "Please, I don't understand and it troubles me, explain some more, so I can be reunited with you."
CK commented:
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.
the Socinian wrote:
...perhaps most significant, is the supposition that “anti-oppression” is a valid religious principle to which all sincere UUs should commit both private devotional practice and public prophetic advocacy. I deny the premise on its face. Justice, equity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, karma, dharma, atonement, salvation – these are all legitimate religious concepts worthy of devotion that can stand on their own merits. Negative principles, however, are by nature antitheses that cannot exist without a thesis against which they are defined. Valid religious principles therefore cannot be negative, but must be affirmative.

Oppression is objectionable and worth resisting, yes; though not because “anti-oppression” is a valid principle, but rather because justice, equity, and compassion are valid principles, and oppression corrupts them. Oppression is overcome not by promoting “anti-oppression”, but by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. “Anti-oppression”, just like the nemesis against which it necessarily defines itself, falsely divides the world into the worthy “us” and the unworthy “them”. But in reality, it’s all a broken world, we’re all them, and the most valuable lessons of any religion help us come to terms first with the element of that reality that abides within ourselves before we can even attempt to cure it in those other evildoers over there.
In the comments on that post, the Socinian added:
I don't like the way AR/AO has been promoted recently as a core collective value within the UUA, or as a necessary part of our collective identity. I don't like the way it divides the world into the self-righteous "us" and the contemptible "them". I don't like the way it replaces a soteriology of grace with a soteriology of victimhood and conflict. I don't like the way it sanctifies victims for things they had no choice over and demonizes even unwitting "oppressors" for harm they may never have intended (or even have participated in), or the way it eagerly and gullibly finds oppression and victimization even in the most unlikely and dubious of instances. (Like a "brown bag lunch", for instance.) I don't like the fact that too often its response to oppression, whether real or imaginary, fails to include any meaningful physical, emotional or spiritual ministry or healing to the actual victim -- other than perhaps nurturing and encouraging the victim's sense of anger and injustice. I don't like the overemphasis of faultfinding, and underemphasis of our historic Universalist gospel of love and forgiveness even (or especially) when it has not been earned. And I especially don't like it when the extraordinary attention and resources that are devoted to AR/AO in some corners of UU-dom seem to crowd out nearly any other avenue or approach to faith formation.

There are many effective ways to combat racism and oppression, and it is a worthy undertaking, but standing like the Pharisee in the Temple court and piously proclaiming the purity of one's observance of the AR/AO mitzvot is not a particularly good way to do it.
Philocrites offers a useful term for this sort of thing in Brown bag landmines, culling the affiliates, and more.: "terminal earnestness"

There's A Collection of all the Brown Bag Posts (and a side note) at Elizabeth’s Little Blog.

Incidentally, though the brown bag test has become a historical footnote, colorism is not dead: From Columns: The paper bag test:
The most recent case making news in the black press involves two employees of an Applebee's restaurant in Jonesboro, Ga., near Atlanta. There, Dwight Burch, a dark-skinned waiter, who has left the restaurant, filed a lawsuit against Applebee's and his light-skinned African-American manager.

In the suit, Burch alleged that during his three-month stint, the manager repeatedly referred to him as a "black monkey" and a "tar baby." The manager also told Burch to bleach his skin, and Burch was fired after he refused to do so, the suit states.
Related: Nalo Hopkinson and "Killa Wog"


  1. The obscureness of the "brown bag test" can be seen by the fact that there were- and are- many series of brown bag lunch seminars on diversity and anti-racism! Google it and you'll find a lot like this one: http://edpolicy.stanford.edu/events/415 "BROWN BAG SEMINAR: EDUCATION FOR RACIAL UNDERSTANDING: PREJUDICE AND 'THE RACE PROBLEM' IN MID-CENTURY AMERICA" It's a question I've asked many an AR/AO type- how can he or she be accused of using code language if neither the speaker of the audience understands the "code"?

  2. Joel, excellent question. Similar: Is the name of Fucking, Austria obscene?