Sunday, June 03, 2007

This Sort of Sucks.*

I spent much of Sunday morning reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary entry of 26 definitions (not to mention sub-definitions) for "suck" as a verb. Much of "suck" has to do with breastfeeding. It is only definition 15e of "suck" that has any connotations of oral sex (and it's equal opportunity verb; both fellatio and cunnilingus are included as sucking). And there are references from 1928, 1960, 1975, 1977, but no earlier. And none of the references seem male-male or female-female though I can't be sure.

So all I can say is that Nameless Seminarian Who Said "Sucks" was Homophobic: Dude, you're wrong. "That sucks" may be an uncouth response, but if I'm using "suck" as in "to drain the resources of," that accurately described your financial aid arrangement. It drained your resources, hence sucking. And that particular use of "suck" dates to 1583.

Ms. Kitty gives good background on how she comes to her opinions. And I'd like to do that a bit. I've worked in academic publishing as an editor for ten years. I look things up because there is a lot of general misinformation out there that passes as fact. I try not to include misinformation in textbooks. And, as my friend, Mark, the research librarian, says, the more sure he is that something is true, the more likely he is wrong.

So, when I say Pass the Scholarship, Please in the discussion of "brown bags" what I'm saying really is that within the paradigm in which I operate, which is research-based, help me understand what research exists about "brown bag" and racist implications because I'm ignorant. Not racist. Ignorant. And asking questions is a good thing in an intellectual community.
Here is what I've gathered:

1. At a speaker's request at Starr King, the name of a lunch time discussion was changed from "brown bag lunch" to "lunchtime discussion." That seems fine to me. If it's your speaking engagement, you should be able to change the name to something you're comfortable and agree with.

What happened next makes me squeamish, if I properly understand it. There was an intellectual leap from one change to make a guest comfortable to announcing a more widespread diction replacement at an all school meeting ("brown bag lunch" to "bring your own lunch"). Did someone do any diction research? Talk to anyone? Discuss this among the board? What exactly happened? I can't tell, but what I'm searching for is intellectual integrity within social justice work.

2. Pressing on, I've seen mention of Henry Louis Gates and the "brown bag test," in a book and in an interview. And it's important to note that he's mentioning that he, and many other black students, hadn't heard of this test and thought it had a limited regional affiliation. That seems to suggest it's not a particularly widespread phenomenon.

I don't see that any other institution, particularly any historically black institutions, such as Howard or Spelman, has decided not to use the term "brown bag lunch," because of painful racist connotations. And when I see that the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute uses the term (Please note that Henry Louis Gates is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard) then I think that the term is probably not as painful in a widespread sense as Starr King leadership thought. Of course, if in doubt, Starr King leadership could always ask Henry Louis Gates.

3. That said, I continued poking around on-line for evidence of the brown-bag test and its use in language. I'm not counting Wiki as a source for obvious reasons, but I found this editorial referenced about the brown-bag test in the St. Petersburg paper. Now that isn't a bad piece of evidence of the existence of the phenomenon, though it's an editorial and hence not subject to the same sort of fact checking as the rest of the paper. That's about all I can pull up on google.

4. But here's some evidence in Starr King's favor from the amazon search of text of books: 96 results for "paper bag test." Now this suggests to me that this is indeed a phenomenon that many people (at least 96) are familiar with. These aren't particularly scholarly mentions; many seem to read like, "...and we're all familiar with the brown-bag test..." Well, clearly not all of us are. Still, it's a lot of evidence of some awareness of such a test.

5. So here's periodical research. I read Audrey Elisa Kerr's article, The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism in the Journal of American Folklore (Volume 118, Number 469, Summer 2005, pp. 271-289). She explores complexion lore, which she thinks functions to negotiate with racism. And now I understand part of my problem as a researcher. Much of the discussion around brown bag tests occurred in oral history. Some of it appears to be true. Some of it appears to be untrue. But none of it is written down. (Sigh)

6. Which explains why I find nothing in the Oxford English Dictionary about a paper bag test. Nothing. Rien. Nada. Niente.

7. More research identifies an article, African American College Males and Females: A Look at Color Mating Preferences, by Ashraf Esmail and James Sullivan in Race, Gender & Class (New Orleans: 2006), which suggests presence of such tests limited geographically to New Orleans.

8. And Sarah Godfrey's article, Marching in Place; Soulstepping: African American Step Shows, in the Washington City Paper (Washington, 2003) also mentions this test in reference to fraternity and sorority membership.

9. Tricia Lootens writes of the brown bag test test, as well as blue vein tests and comb tests in Off Our Backs (Washington: 1987) in a more widespread geographic fashion.

So changing the name of one discussion because the speaker requests it? Totally fine with me. Not that anyone asked.

Changing the name of all brown bag lunch discussions? Well-intentioned, but considering use of the term at historically black institutions, I think it's intellectually weak to conclude that the term causes pain and suffering without doing more research.

And, frankly, all of this creates a huge public relations problem for Starr King. When you become the language police (whether or not you think you were behaving in this way, it certainly was written about in the blogosphere in this fashion), that behavior overshadows all the other good work that you do. The meaningful stuff. The stuff you should be calling attention to.

Finally, I think the brown bag issue gets at a much larger problem for Unitarian Universalists, which is an obsession with diction. After all, it wasn't at Starr King that I was told that saying "that sucks" was homophobic; it was at another seminary that educates UUs. As a writer and editor, I know words are meaningful, but when you receive so much negative publicity for devoting resources to diction-changing and not to your good works in the world, the actual words you changed seem pretty meaningless. And then people make fun of you. This doesn't serve any greater cause. This makes Unitarian Universalism look pretty silly, and I know that was never your intention. So while I'm not suggesting ignorant language use, I am suggesting that time and energy could be devoted elsewhere during the lunch hour.

*By saying "This sort of sucks" I'm talking about sucking valuable resources. Like time and energy.