One of the unfortunate side effects of America’s long, long love affair with racism is that there are just certain parts of our culture and lexicon that will always be tied to it. That’s especially true of folksy saying, almost anything exclusively Southern, and anything remotely connected to the words “Dixie” or “cotton.” Still, though, the GOP — connected at the hip as it is to the Confederacy — just can’t seem to get away from evoking casual racism in day-to-day speech. The very frame of reference seems stuck to the GOP like a…uhh…
“Tar baby.” That’s right, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said it. And he’s not taking it back. Recently, he acknowledged that, on a post-election conference call, he referred to Obama’s policies as a “tar baby” stuck to the Democratic Party. An observation which, absent the racial context, proved fairly accurate during this year’s mid-terms.
In an email to Politico, Barbour defended his remarks on exactly that basis, and apologized for making them. More or less.
“If someone takes offense, I regret it. But, again, neither the context nor the connotation was intended to offend.”
He explained further, per Politico:
“The Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as ‘a difficult problem, that’s only aggravated by attempts to solve it.’ This is exactly what I meant and the context in which I used the term,” wrote Barbour, who co-founded BGR after serving as Reagan’s White House political director, and before chairing the Republican National Committee.
“In the Q and A portion of the call, there was a discussion about whether Democrats will run from or embrace the President’s policies and record in 2016. I replied that once candidates embraced the President’s policies and record they will be stuck with them — no matter how unpopular they are. Hence the literary reference.”
That literary reference comes from an Uncle Remus story published in 1881. In the story, Br’er Fox sets a trap to snare Br’er Rabbit, constructing a toddler-sized dummy of tar and turpentine and setting it in the Rabbit’s path. Br’er Rabbit initially addresses the doll politely; but the doll refuses to respond. Angered by the doll’s lack of manners, Br’er Rabbit strikes the doll and gets stuck. The harder he tries to untangle himself, the worse the problem gets until he’s hopeless adhered to Br’er Fox’s trap. Since then, the “tar baby” has been used as a metaphor to describe problems that are only made worse by trying to untangle ones-self from them.
According to politicians like Barbour, John McCain, Michelle Bachmann and Mitt Romney, they use the term in that context. According to them, there’s no racial element to it. And it’s possible they did mean it that way; John Kerry also used it.
Even at the time of publication, the story was seen as something of a metaphor for slavery and segregation, which had itself become something of a political “tar baby.” The story itself actually came from slaves, derived from an African story of the gum doll Anansi reputedly used to trap Mmoatia.
Embittered Southerners have since used it to refer to blacks as a whole; in particular when invoking the “we should have picked our own cotton” lament.
Of course, illustrations like this might have also helped to fuel the racial undertones:
It’s not as though people are unaware of the racial context.
Still, though, it remains commonly in use in some places, and in the Oxford English connotation of the phrase. Particularly in the South, as yours truly can attest. In a way, it is kind of a shame that such a brilliant literary metaphor had to have been associated with hatred and racism. Sort of in the same way it’s a shame that whistling Dixie, or flying the Confederate flag in front of a plantation house in Georgia would be.
But, they are…and the implication is kind of hard to miss. Particularly when it’s spoken by certain people, to certain other ones, about a certain-colored person that neither of them like.
That’s the reality.
But, our cultural phraseology is still stuck to racism like a…whatever. The two can be hard to extricate from each other. There. So, as a public service to our conservative and Southern friends, here are a few basic do’s and don’ts on appropriate phrasing:
- While complaining about the wait times for internet customer service, DON’T say they put you “on the back of the bus.”
- When speaking of multiple people from Nigeria, DO use the plural “Nigerians.”
- If you should encounter someone whose hair is askew from a short period of slumber, DON’T say they suffer from “nappy head.”
- If the power grid goes out on one side of your city, DO refrain from calling it “the dark side of town.”
- While speaking of the separation of church and state, DON’T say: “Segregation now! Segregation FOREVER!”