Of Black Sheep and Brown Bags

Peacebang goes on a little rant after reading this article in Quest by a Starr King graduate.  Berry’s Mom has a great response.  My response is a little different.

First, I wonder why Peacebang jumps to the conclusion that the words “brown bag” have been banned at Starr King. That’s not what the article says, nor implies. Instead, an educational moment is described in which organizers of an event say they’ll be using a different term: “byol” for “bring your own lunch.” It seems to me that this kind of moment is an example of exactly the kind of education our ministers need.  No one was shamed or ridiculed or told what they could or could not say.  (More that I can say for the tenor of the conversation at Peacebang’s blog…)

They were simply given the opportunity to learn about a way language can sometimes evoke the pain and ghosts of the past. I’ve just gotten back from almost five months at Starr King and I received no list of banned phrases nor any hint that I was dealing with folks for whom “the world was awfully full of oppression.”  I found people full of joy who take words seriously and are willing and able to have nuanced, caring, and interesting conversations about the power of words.

It’s likely that the term “brown bag lunch” isn’t directly connected to the history of measuring “acceptable” skin tones against a paper bag. But I don’t know that. Maybe “brown bag lunches” once meant that the darker skinned folks weren’t welcome.  I could say that doesn’t matter, but that’s easy for me to say. My skin color has never been used to exclude me.  Yet, knowing that history, isn’t it a bit arrogant and insensitive of me to insist that my freedom to say “brown bag lunch” is more important than the possibility of evoking that painful piece of history? What about my desire to hang on to the constant association of blackness and darkness with evil?  Since it doesn’t affect me, why should it matter?

Is care with words really too “politically correct” for you?  Maybe “those people” are just being “too sensitive again?” There was a time when I would have wondered.  But now I have a sixteen-year-old African-American son who is reminded every damn day that he is not welcome and it’s the status quo that more men like him are in jail than in college. I don’t think it’s asking too much for us to learn something about the history of language and choose to use words that don’t remind, reinforce, and even reify the racist past and present.  Because in my life it’s sticks and stones that break bones, but words that really hurt…

I’m proud of Starr King and proud to have been educated at an institution that refuses to compromise on its commitment to countering oppression, no matter how small the matter or how many people think the work is “ridiculous.” In this instance, and in every instance I’ve seen, the school and its leaders have done exactly what they have said they would do: they have educated to counter racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and oppression in all its forms. I don’t think that’s ridiculous.

***Once again, I feel the need to say I speak for myself, not for my congregation or as a member of the SKSM board. Though I can say I am on the board because I feel this way about the school and its mission.***

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18 thoughts on “Of Black Sheep and Brown Bags

  1. Dear Sean,

    Thank you for this. I appreciate your reasoning, but more than that your passion. One of the underlying messages in PeaceBang’s comments is that “reason” and what is derisively called “political correctness” are incompatible, and that StarrKing-ers getting upset about PeaceBang’s post is evidence of our silliness and symptomatic of what is “wrong” with UUism right now. Frankly I don’t see how a person can talk about this stuff, the work we aspire to, without getting mad! Sometimes you need anger, because reason is so easily deflected and subverted. Balance is important, and relying solely on our reason deprives us of our dis-satisfaction. I know that I have been complacent for far too long, and I don’t want to be reasoned out of my anger.

    Again, thank you for your words. We miss you at the Treehouse and the school, and hope that all is well on your return to Utah! Can’t wait til we see you next!

    Andy

  2. As per usual, much needed ideas in this, the contructed body of words that is the “UU blogosphere.”

    Again, ‘miss you already!

    -j

  3. It’s likely that the term “brown bag lunch” isn’t directly connected to the history of measuring “acceptable” skin tones against a paper bag. But I don’t know that.

    Don’t you think that’s important to find out before deciding to change the name of such event on the basis of racial sensitivity?

    I don’t know the history here–maybe someone complained, or maybe this was a preemptive move. But it seems that the issue could be discussed in terms of past language use & oppression, current interpretation, and responsibility… without either “side” being condemned as too PC or being deaf to opression.

    That said, I am glad that, in the story shared, the moment was taken to clarify and discuss. I just think it could have gone further, towards challenging the assumption that “brown bag lunch” has racist connotations–and evidence pro/con given.

    Personally, I think the move was hypersensitive, but I don’t discount the motives of the individuals, just their *reasoning* (and if we cannot disagree with other people’s reasons without ad hominem attacks, then I fear for the future of a “free church”…)

  4. As I understand it, a guest speaker asked that the name be changed. (This was five years ago, so I’m relying on the memories of those who were there.) The guest explained the history and the name of the event was changed from “brown bag lunch” to “lunchtime conversation.” The leadership of the school announced the decision with a general “due to the racism…” kind of explanation. A student asked for clarification, a good discussion ensued, and people went on their way.

    Does it matter if the connection is direct and explicit? It depends on your perspective. If the goal is accuracy, then yes. If the goal is hospitality to a guest, then no.

    Racism is constructed. It is created and recreated every day through interactions, expectations, words, and actions. Does changing a word or two here and there actually help end racism? It may not be a big, flashy, or even noteworthy effort, but I believe that learning about this bit of history and having this conversation does help.

  5. I cannot feel to comment directly on the “brown bag” conversation, because it does seem to me that Melissa’s original point, her own shock and horror at being told the uses to which brown bags were put to enfranchise racism even in churches, somewhere got lost in the sandwich wrappings. And I also feel, with you, that the important use of such bits of “trivia”, if you like (in using the word “trivia” here, I am not demeaning the importance of such stories but naming their collective historical patent)is to help people to “have nuanced, caring, and interesting conversations about the power of words.”

    But the part of your own message to which I feel to respond is the part about your own son. He participated in a leading role in our recent Youth Service on May 6th, and he was committed, involved, passionate and effective. He sang, with two other young men, David Bowie’s “Changes” as a thematic musical number for the service. He spoke from the pulpit in a responsive reading which he chose, and led, and it is this which had such moving power for me. His reading was from the work of Tupak, not a person whose name I associate with deeply moving poetry one is likely to hear in church. But apparently he knows quite a bit about the work of Tupak, as he read for me three pieces from a book of his writings in the car on the way to church asking me to help him choose (which I preferred to leave to him, and wisely so, I think.) What he read, he was fully involved in. Fully committed to. His voice and phrasing let me know that he is inside the message of the culture of blackness, and totally understands the choices he will be making within it. Sean, I do not think your son is going to be part of that unfortunate status quo. Listening to him swaying our congregation with the words of Tupak, I was moved to comment to a friend that the apple did not fall far from the tree. He preaches, without knowing he is, with commitment and passion and conviction. I have seldom been more moved in church. I wish you had been there.

  6. I wish I’d been there too, Maureen. And I wish I could feel confident that he won’t end up a part of the “status quo” of more black men in jail than in college.

    But he’s definitely struggling. Every day.

  7. If the goal is accuracy, then yes. If the goal is hospitality to a guest, then no.

    Are these contradictory?

  8. I know that I have been complacent for far too long, and I don’t want to be reasoned out of my anger.

    I’m not following you. Anger at what — Racism? (I don’t hear anyone making a reasoned defense of racism.) The suggestion that equating brown bag lunches with racism is a worthwhile tool in the struggle against racism? (I can imagine some easy rebuttals, but I can’t quite see them being delivered in a barely-controlled passionate rage.) The suggestion that equating brown bag lunches with racism is a silly, invalid gesture? (Anger won’t persuade the doubters otherwise, but substantive argument might.) The suggestion that equating brown bag lunches with racism is such a seemingly empty gesture that, whether it has real validity or not, it diminishes the credibility of more substantive UU efforts to combat racism? (Empirically, it does have that effect, even within the UU community, as PeaceBang’s comments and thread responses reveal. Anger doesn’t justify denial of reality, but it might motivate the search for a constructive solution.)

  9. ck, no, i don’t think they’re altogether contradictory. as i would argue in just about anything…i think it’s more complicated than what many around here are saying (taking a page from kuhn). i think that because the connection was made by those who feel/see/hear racist connotations every day, then an institution wanting to be hospitable to folks who feel/see/hear constant racism needs to be constantly in conversation within and without about how it is pushing/showing/shouting a racist ideology.

    since white supremacy and its myriad of manifestations is so pervasive in our society — from the foundations of American metaethical thought to the construction of histories — for a person with the privilege of not having to confront racism daily to balk at a conversation because of its supposed inaccuracy (inaccuracy according to their paradigm) is, in my opinion, not only practicing inhospitality but being scholastically lax as well.

    i read on your profile that you’re a fellow philosophy buff and having just reread west’s american evasion of philosophy, you may be interested to read his chapter that starts with a severe criticism of russell and whitehead’s principia. (whitehead, of course, being the man who inspired cobb, who inspired my favorite thealogian, catherine keller.) i’d also recommend james perkinson’s white theology, if you haven’t already come across it — i don’t know if sean read that while he was down here, but it fascinated me and i’d love to hear your take sometime.

    and, uh, since this is public…that goes for anyone willing to read perkinson! (especially you sean!)
    -j

  10. Thanks for the reading suggestions. I’m not going to drag this out any more online (I think that all sides have gotten a fair chance to have a go at their positions). I disagree with your interpretation, as I read it, of how to apply paradigms in this situation, but that’s neither here nor there.

    For me, what is important is airing the conversation so that we can understand what went on, why, and have a chance to converse about it. Reasoned discussion doesn’t mean that there’s no place for anger, or pain, or personal narratives. And conversely, emotions and stories are accompanied by reasons and logical frameworks. So I don’t see this one side as relying “solely on reason” while the other is practicing morally justified anger. We’re both (I hope) trying to reason together and hear the other’s perspective. That would, I think, apply to both the guest and the host, the oppressed and the privileged.

    But I’m relatively new in UU circles, at some of this reading (maybe my course with Sharon Welch at Meadville will help color some of my ideas) and so that’s just my take on this whole kerfuffle.

    Thanks, Sean, for conversing and and jkh2os for answering my questions.

  11. Jkh20s gave a great answer about theory and thinking. My answer is more practical:

    Do you say to the guest, “Um…we googled the history of brown bag lunches and since we couldn’t find evidence that your request is historically accurate, we decided to go ahead and call it a ‘brown bag lunch.'”?

  12. (I know I said I’d stop commenting…) Sean, I think you might say–“Really? I didn’t know that Brown Bag Lunches were connected to the Brown Bag Test. Where are you getting that from?” –> Invitation for the guest to share story and reasons. And personally, I’d do more than just Google! 🙂

    “We want to be sensitive to your history and we’ll gladly call your event what you’d like. We may even share that with our student body.” –> Willingness to be hospitable, to learn.

    I don’t think that requires taking the step of changing all “brown bag lunches” to another term on the assumption that it will offend all people, everywhere, at all times. And I would say that if someone decided to make that move, they’d want to have some good historical, contextual and linguistic *reasons* for doing so. That’s really all I’m saying!

    Plus, I think what I’ve sketched out gives everyone a chance to learn and be stretched. Just because I have a history of being abused and oppressed (I am a lesbian and used an example on CC’s site that I think is closely parallel) doesn’t mean that I can’t be wrong, or, for that matter, be involved in oppressing other people. (The brown bag story is an excellent example of this, in fact, since it is about colorism and oppression within an oppressed group. You can also think of gay men being part of a patriarchal group which has access to resources that lesbians do not…and on and on).

    I really hope that helps explain my *personal* stance on all of this. I do still disagree about what went down, as presented by these sources–but I’m not going to make it my little battle! And I can’t speak for what others have said to get you angry (which I know touches on a whole different context, with your son, your time at Starr King, etc.)

    End of long comment which I said I wouldn’t make in the first place!!

  13. ck, yeah, you’re right, that way of mentioning paradigm was, ick, i didn’t mean that…i think what i meant to say was inaccuracy according to their worldview informed by dominant paradigms on race. so, yeah, paradigm belonging to one, not what i meant at all.

    this may be a lack of imagination on my part, but i think that there is a parellel between how scientific or philosophical paradigms shift and what happens within a community shifting from a colonial to postcolonial mindset. (umm…disclaimer: i’m certainly not suggesting that sksm sits in this, latter, space, but i think its practice and community-bound ideologies are far closer to it than the u.s. as a whole. or liberal theological academia.)

    so…that’s what i meant with that terribly ackward use of paradigm.

    oh, and, i really, really, really don’t think this should be about airing one’s own position. i think what’s far more important is learning from each other about how to go about anti-racism work; and that conversation shouldn’t end. (one way that racism functions is to put the focus of a deeper problem onto a specific referrant and then have that conversation become irrelevant.) but i think you know this, as you’ve just posted another comment 😉 — and one exploring the connection of racism to heterosexism, something having seemingly nothing to do with brown bags (unless we’re all carrying our queer cards in our lunches that day…).

    anyway, thank you for staying in the conversation and have an awesome time in sharon welch’s class — i have to say i’m a little jealous after hearing her speak out here, she’s great!

  14. I’m impressed that you’ve mentioned your own struggle with racism online. I’m pretty much afraid to, after this discussion. But I’ve commented on this topic here.

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