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University of Michigan's 'Words Matter Task Force' says the words 'picnic' and 'brown bag' are offensive


Wait. What?

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The University of Michigan has a "Words Matter Task Force," and the organization has declared that certain words such as "picnic" and "brown bag" are offensive.

The Words Matter Task Force has "evaluated the terms and language conventions that may hinder effective communication, harm morale, and deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from feeling accepted to foment a healthy and inclusive culture." The group, which is a part of Michigan's Information and Technology Services, advises that people should avoid using so-called problematic words such as "privileged account," "handicapped," "blacklist," "crazy," "grandfathered," and "dummy."

The Information and Technology Services, a "trusted enabler of technology for the U-M community," created the Words Matter Task Force. The group claims that by "using inclusive language, ITS is able to design and build better tools and services to meet customers' needs."

"Given the importance of communication and the ITS core value of inclusivity, the Words Matter Task Force was formed and charged with identifying terms used within ITS that are, or can be construed to be, racist, sexist, or non-inclusive," the Words Matter Task Force states in the 10-page document that was updated on Dec. 8.

Inclusive language means not using sayings such as "long time no see," "crack the whip," "low man on the totem pole," "off the reservation," and "sold down the river."

Despite the word "picnic" being labeled as offensive by the Words Matter Task Force, a Reuters fact-check article stated that the word "picnic" is "not racist" and "does not originate from the lynchings of African Americans."

"The word picnic derives from the 17th century French word 'pique-nique,' a term used to describe a social gathering in which attendees each contributed with a portion of food or another useful item," according to Dr David Pilgrim, author of several books on the history and cultural symbols of the Jim Crow era.

Despite being the "Information and Technology Services," tech terms such as "master" and "slave" are prohibited. Technopedia defines "master/slave" as a "model of communication for hardware devices where one device has a unidirectional control over one or more devices."

The guidance also advises people to not use the term "preferred pronouns" and to simply call them "pronouns."

The Words Matter Task Force wants to "create educational animations/short videos for ITS staff" with three purposes:

  • To encourage empathy for how others may feel when words have negative connotations.
  • To spur curiosity about why words matter, and direct people to other educational resources.
  • To provide a non-threatening, quick resource that is easily shared/disseminated.

The "educational" short videos would use "neutral characters" such as "stick figures."

In September, the University of Michigan-Dearborn apologized for organizing a virtual cafe event for students that was segregated by race.

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