Brown Bags

Ok, I will get into this one as well.
For those who stepped out briefly: here is the backstory.

Melissa Mummert, in a sermon reprinted in Quest, describes Starr King School for the Ministry's decision to cease using the phrase "brown bag lunch".

Peacebang comments on this, and not in a supportive way.

Much commenting ensues. Most of it is a defense of SKSM's curriculum's focus on anti-oppression.

My interest was piqued by the blog entry of the Left Coast Unitarian.

Key paragraph:

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.

On a very small scale, herein lies the weakness of much of the anti-racism and anti-oppression work that has been done among Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century. This paragraph describes an asymmetrical relationship and a lack of mutual critical accountability. It goes far beyond the small things -- titles of gatherings -- but extends to highest levels of analysis.

Read over Melissa Mummert's sermon again, which describes in detail, how she learned that the phrase "brown bag lunch" was unacceptable at SKSM. It was just announced. She was silent, but did not understand. Someone else cautiously raised the question as to why this change was necessary, and Mummert internally cheered. A brief explanation was given, and that was sufficient to end the discussion.

Why? There are so many questions unanswered here, which require a critical spirit to raise. Just from my knowledge of history:

  1. My understanding is that the brown bag test was a means of enforcing color lines within the African American community in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. Was it used by whites as well? (Whites in the South did not distinguish between light-skinned and darker African Americans when it came to segregation.)
  2. Is this practice in the current memory of African Americans, or is it a recovered historical fact?
  3. Was the phrase "brown Bag lunch" itself used as a code to describe who was and who was not welcome at lunch?
  4. Are brown paper bags themselves objects that are avoided in African American communities because of their role in the racial history of the US.
  5. What attitude should white people take toward color prejudice in the African American community?
  6. What does knowledge of this piece of US racial history require of us? So what? Does it follow that we ought to not use the phrase "brown bag lunch"? Should we not use brown bags at all?
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."

Such an attitude, as so briefly summarized by the Left Coast Unitarian, leads first, to intellectual laziness, secondly, to relationships of domination and subordination and finally to the abuse of power.

What the Left Coast Unitarian describes is, in compressed form, is a theory of the sociology of knowledge, an essential piece of the whole construct of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, as developed by Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It has a history, and has been put into practice, and the consequences have been made clear. It is a theory of knowledge that does not advance understanding and greater knowledge, but subordinates knowledge to the acquisition and maintenance of power.

When I talk about this, I am not talking about far away places and times gone by. The attitude toward knowledge, criticism and mutual moral accountability that the Left Coast Unitarian describes explains why our Unitarian Universalist movement has been studying racism and oppression for about a decade now, and is less sophisticated in its understanding of it than people were in 1975.

A final self-advertisement. Click on my longer paper "Anti-Racism Decoded" in the right column for a much longer analysis of anti-racism in the UUA, as I saw it at the time of the Nashville GA in what? 2000?


  1. I don't disagree with the problem you identify. Like I said, its not a perfect system. It can certainly be overly speculative or subject to manipulation. And I understand how easy it is to write off overly earnest people trying to be "more antiracist than though."

    But if the Henry Lewis Gates references the brown "Bag Party" in describing his experience in the Ivy League, that qualifies for recent enough to me.

    I eat my lunch in a brown paper bag at least weekly at Starr King. And we still participate in Brown Bag Lunches offered throughout the GTU and a quick look at the newsletter shows that the school has hosted Brown Bag Lunches in the past couple months.

    When it comes to this particular issue, my epistemology reflects an actual knowledge of Starr King as well as a particular faculty member who has talked about this exact term before. So rather than a "Gee, what will Starr King think of next?" reaction, I tend to see the original sermon as someone reflecting on a real experience based on the real experience of someone I respect.

  2. To me, the brown bags were not the point.

    The point was that with no explanation, the term was deemed racist and that Mummert herself was too scared of being thought racist to ask about it.

    I am glad that one student had te courage to ask about it after several minutes.

    But if it takes courage to speak up, we're not having the sort of honest conversation we need to be having to make actual progress.


  3. I think you said what I was thinking and trying to say, but you said it much more eloquently and with a wealth of background knowledge. Thank you.

  4. Jeff W.11:38 AM

    LT: I think you provided a very insightful analysis here. I hope many people from Starr King and in the AR/AO group read it and think about it deeply.

    jfield: It doesn't appear from your comment that you engaged the substantive points of this post in any depth. Rather, all you appear to do is perpetuate the sloppy thinking being criticized. Your counter-argument seems to be that you were there and the person who has been assigned to do your thinking for you was a big shot, so it is OK to cede intellectual engagement and personal conscience in favor of adherence to outside authority. Perhaps you might think about re-commenting and engaging the actual argument that is being set out by LT. As it stands now, you appear to have confirmed LT's central criticism.

  5. Some students have protested my use of the word "banished" to describe what was done with the formerly-used expression "brown bag lunch." It wasn't BANISHED or CENSORED, they say: it was REPLACED.

    Let's get this right. It was not "replaced." Students were informed by an administrator that there would be a linguistic change. Those who questioned it were not given a logical explanation, but a lesson in AR/AO.
    If you are a student with a major financial, emotional and future stake in an institution that will grade you and, you hope, award you a degree, how free do you really feel in that environment to say how uncomfortable you are with the lack of critical thinking exhibited in the situation.

    Not very. The "banishment" of the term brown bag lunch doesn't need to be literal. It is, as you have suggested, implied.

    Which makes me shudder. THANK you for naming the domination-subordination dynamic here.

  6. Kim Hampton9:45 PM

    I have a couple of corrections to your understanding of the test...if that's ok LT.

    1. The test was NOT limited to New Orleans and the surrounding areas. (my father's people are from Mississippi and my mother's people are from Alabama and the test was widely practiced in both places)

    2. Southern Whites did make a distintion between lighter skinned blacks and darker skinned blacks. This is part of the reason so many lighter skinned blacks "passed" and why many white families have black relatives that they may or may not know about.

    Anyway....enough about that. What has bothered me about the whole thing is that the change was announced as if this was some great blow to color oppression. It was not.

    Good questions. I will respond to the rest of them when I've had a chance to think about them.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Oh dear.

    It looks like Rev. Diane Rollert of the alleged Unitarian Church of Montreal is quite oblivious to the Starr*k raving "brown bag lunch" controversy. ;-)

    Straight from the home page of this alleged U*U "Church" -

    What's New

    Friday, September 28, 2007

    The Unitarian Church of Montreal has a wealth of activities; you can just sample or get more involved in this community. In the month of September, you can

    Join Rev. Diane Rollert for a new season of Seeking the Sacred in Stories, a brown bag lunch group meeting at noon on September 25th (copies of the story available at the UCM office).

    How terribly un-PC of you Rev. Rollert. . .

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