Saturday, May 30, 2009

Touching pitch

A Canadian MP, Pierre Poilievre, said in the House of Commons:
“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” he said. He repeated the line again later.
Naturally, this has raised a furor and charges of "racism".
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes a tar baby as a situation “from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself,” but the term has been used pejoratively to describe black children.
The careful use of the passive voice should be your first tipoff that this is a bogus charge. Where does it come from, this claim that "tar baby" is a racist slur? I want proof. I have found a total of two quotes online to support it: first an interview of the novelist Toni Morrison, who used the term as the title of a novel, and said,
Tar Baby is also a name [...] that white people call black children, black girls, as I recall.
At one time, a tar pit was a holy place, at least an important place, because tar was used to build things.
It held together things like Moses' little boat and the pyramids.
For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together.
The other one is also from a novelist, John Updike:
In his book Coup, John Updike says of a white woman who prefers the company of black men, "some questing chromosome within holds her sexually fast to the tar baby."
Apart from this, there is the Urban Dictionary, claiming that there is a more explicit line "from a children's story", but no reference, and I've found no trace of such a story online. Unlike the more well-known racial slurs like "n*gger" and "coon", which are documented in hundreds of books, letters, songs, quotes and every other kind of verbal format, the existence of "tar baby" as a slur, as far as I can see, rests upon anecdotal evidence alone. And anecdotes that come from professional fabulators.

There are a few similar cases of this same ruckus being raised in the past few years:

John McCain said it in reference to a divorce issue. "The phrase is considered by some to be a racial epithet."

Mitt Romney used it as a metaphor for the Big Dig.

Tony Snow used it to refer to a problematic program.

Virginia Foxx of North Carolina used it last month to refer to the government bailout program.

Every one of the politicians who used the term used it correctly, as a reference to the Uncle Remus story describing a sticky situation from which extrication is impossible. Every one of them used it to describe a thing, not a person (and I don't think that inanimate objects have race). Only the article on Romney went to the trouble of finding a possible reference for the term as racial slur, and could still only come up with Updike's quote, which sounds to me like a novelist coining a clever double meaning, not tapping into a genuine Americanism. So we have a lot of assurances that some people, somewhere, think that this is a racial epithet, but next to no evidence that it has ever really been said or meant in this way. Just a few vague reminiscences that it's supposed to have happened, down in the south somewhere.

Frankly, I don't believe that this has ever been a racial epithet. I think people have vague memories of the expression "a lick of the tar brush" to describe a person of mixed-race ancestry, and have extrapolated from that a confused suspicion that "tar" must always be some kind of code for anti-black prejudice.

Since all that's required to start an outrage campaign is the assertion that a phrase "is considered by some" to be racist, I'm starting my own right now.

I hereby announce that the term "blackberry" is racist. "It has been used" to refer to black people. On November 5, 2008, someone said to someone else, "I can't believe anyone would vote for that blackberry." As they say in 'Plan 9 From Outer Space', can you prove it DIDN'T happen? And I think a black girl in the movie "Fame" says something about blackberries being sweeter, so that pretty much settles it.

I will now file a Canadian Human Rights complaint against the BlackBerry phone company, demanding that they change their name to BlueBerry. I also want $10 million in damages for myself, for the proliferation of their outrageous racist products in Canada. No, I'm not black, but actual injury is not a requirement, as we have discovered from the Richard Warman cases.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember all the furore over the use of the scientific term "black hole"?

Ellie M.

11:32 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes, and that wasn't that long ago, was it?

3:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Tar Baby" is from the Uncle Remus stories; it was a trap made by Br'er Fox to catch Br'er Rabbit, who then made his escape by begging not to be thrown in the Brier Patch.

6:30 pm  
Blogger Hiram said...

I remember when people were calling Huck Finn racist because of Huck's decision to forgo his "Christian duty" by not turning Jim in to the authorities. Mark Twain wrote that as a way to show how twisted our thinking had gotten, not as a way to advocate holding members of a particular race as slaves. Some people do not know how to read literature...

5:45 pm  
Blogger Cory said...

Quite frankly, sir, I'm appalled that you would abuse this forum with such horribly offensive words as "blackberry" and "tar baby". People like you disgust me!

:)

11:51 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yeah, I guess I've sort of blown any possible political career I might have contemplated, eh?

4:00 pm  

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