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There's more to Seattle 'brown bag' racial controversy than meets the eye

A Seattle official who advised that city spokesmen avoid the term "brown bag" as racially offensive has defended his position in the face of national ridicule over what critics called political correctness run amok.

Elliott Bronstein, chief spokesman for the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, advised the city's public information officers to avoid the phrase and use terms like "sack lunch" or "lunch-and-learn," according to a memo first reported Wednesday by seattlepi.com.

"This issue came up in one of the departments and I thought I'd send it around as an fyi for your consideration," the memo reads. "We often use the expression 'brown bag' to designate a bring-your-own lunch time event. We also use the word 'citizens' as a synonym for 'residents.'

"Innocuous phrases, right?" it went on. "Mm, not so much for. For some people, the phrase 'brown bag' calls up ugly associations with use of the expression 'brown bag' to determine if people's skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event, a home, etc.

"'Citizens' is a different case: We sometimes use it as another way of saying 'members of the public' — except for all the members of the public who aren't actually citizens but who live and work here."

The memo — which was widely misreported as an "order" or "ban" — set off a small storm of criticism across the country.

The conservative website The Daily Caller said the memo's logic could be used to ban any reference to any color, and in an allusion to the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain — who grew up near Seattle — it wrote, "I understand now, Kurt Cobain."

"I find this perfectly insane," constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley wrote Friday on his blog.

"This term originated with ... wait for it ... the use of bags that are brown. That's right, paper bags have been brown. People have taken their lunches in brown paper bags for decades. However, the office of Civil Rights found someone offended by that term," he wrote.

In an interview Thursday with KIRO radio of Seattle, Bronstein fired back.

"For a lot of, particularly, African American community members," he said, "the phrase 'brown bag' does bring up associations with the past when a brown bag was actually used, I understand, to determine if people's skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event or to come into a party that was being held in a private home."

Scholarly research and touchstones of African-American popular culture show that Bronstein is right.

In a 2006 book, Audrey Elisa Kerr, a professor of African-American literature at Southern Connecticut State University, documents reports throughout the 20th century of the use of paper bags by African-American fraternities, sororities, churches and social clubs to determine whether a potential member was light-skinned enough to be socially acceptable.

Approval signified "that the gathering was limited to a handpicked, pre-identified, exclusive (and, more important, exclusionary) group, all of whom could be identified by their complexions, which were lighter than the color of a standard brown paper bag," Kerr writes in "The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, D.C."

"The paper bag is both a source of pride and an objectionable taboo," she writes.

In "The Future of the Race," by scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, Gates writes that as a student at Yale University in the 1960s, "some of the brothers who came from New Orleans held a 'bag party.' As a classmate explained it to me, a bag party was a New Orleans custom wherein a brown paper bag was stuck on the door. Anyone darker than the bag was denied entrance."

The custom is so deeply established in African-American lore that it was satirized a quarter of a century ago in Spike Lee's movie "School Daze," in scenes that chronicle the rivalry between the fictional Gamma Ray sorority — whose members must be "paper-bag light" — and darker-skinned activist students.

In his radio interview, Bronstein concluded 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."