Don’t Call It a ‘Brown Bag Lunch’: Seattle Frowns on Popular Term

Officials are concerned about the saying's racially-charged past

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Brown lunch bag on table

It’s not a brown bag lunch, it’s a “sack lunch.” The Office for Civil Rights in Seattle, Washington has suggested that government workers refrain from using the common term because it could be offensive to some people, according to Komo News. It’s also asking city workers to refer to the public as “residents,” not citizens, on the grounds that the government serves everyone in the city, not just U.S. citizens.

In terms of the seemingly innocent brown bag that has been used to pack lunches for decades, the term actually traces back to the “brown paper bag test,” which was traditionally used to judge skin color by certain African-American sororities and fraternities. Wikipedia explains that the color of the paper bag was the center marker of blackness – if your skin tone was darker than the paper bag you would not be let into the party. City leaders usually designate bring-your-own-lunch meetings as brown bag lunch meetings, but have decided that “lunch-and-learn” or “sack lunch” are more appropriate alternatives.

Words that hold racial connotations are not the only ones that are being questioned – the state of Washington has recently voted to replace words from official records that hold specific gender connotations. For example, ‘freshman’ is now ‘first-year,’ journeymen are now ‘journey-level’ and ‘penmanship’ is merely ‘handwriting.’

While the city has its reasons for balking at the words, some Seattle residents told KOMO that they think the proposed new language goes too far. No doubt they’ll voice their opinions about it during “lunch-and-learns” in the weeks ahead.

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