I almost published “tar baby” years ago to describe a sticky situation. This would have ranked me with an impressive list of local liberal journalists. Blogger Ari Armstrong listed some who have used the phrase: Westword’s liberal editor Patricia Calhoun; the Denver Post’s Allison Sherry; the Denver Post’s editorial board; Denver Post columnist Bob Ewegen; and Westword’s Alan Prendergast.
Fortunately for me, an editor explained that “tar baby” was quicksand. Fine. I’d make due with the less-scenic word “quagmire.”
So what’s next on the list of forbidden phrases? Bet on “straw hut.” More on that later.
Outrage over the latest politician who said “tar baby,” in an egregious context, reminds me of my introduction to racial issues. I was five and riding in our van. A slightly older sibling, seated next to me behind Mom and Dad, spontaneously recited a parody of the “Daniel Boone” TV show theme song. It was learned on a playground and contained the word “bigger,” followed by the hateful N-word.
The Volkswagen van screeched to a halt. Our parents turned and went berserk. Each wagged a finger in my sibling’s face and explained how there would be dire consequences for saying a horrible word. An intermittent lecture seemed to last for days.
Months later, my family moved to a college town that was opposing the Vietnam War and promoting civil rights. I would marinate in a culture of peace and equal justice.
As usual, my mother wanted us to learn from the story. I pondered how a plantation slave, a person considered property of another, could be joyful. I concluded Uncle Remus was strong and wise, a man of extraordinary character.
The film was 26 years old when I saw it. After its release in 1946, the NAACP praised the film’s “remarkable artistic merit,” yet decried the “impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.” It was reasonable commentary. Out of respect for that concern, Disney never released the entire film on home video.
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That is, to my understanding, the origin of racial tension involving this movie that is best known for the brief appearance of a tar baby — a figure adopted from West African folklore. The doll had nothing to do with race, nor did the rabbit.
Was I racist for writing the obscure “tar baby” phrase, long after forgetting its origin? You decide. My upbringing led me to expose a major police force for detaining and unlawfully stopping black people at a rate much higher than whites. I crusade against disproportionate minority incarceration rates. I rage against the blatantly and intentionally racist “anchor baby” phrase, which presumes that Latin American immigrants have children only to exploit white people. Call me a racist and I’ll produce a 20-year paper trail that shows otherwise. When I wrote “tar baby,” race never entered my mind. I have no idea what entered the thoughts of Rep. Doug Lamborn, Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John McCain or countless journalists who have said or written “tar baby.”
Today, the phrase is a slur we should avoid in respect for those who take honest offense — even if we mean no harm. Lamborn’s use of the phrase in reference to touching our first black president was an outrage.
At the same time, we should guard against allowing politically correct sensitivity to run amok. Today we shun “Song of the South.” Tomorrow, it could be the “Three Little Pigs.”
The British government’s technology agency in 2008 banned from the annual school awards a story based on the “Three Little Pigs.” A panel of judges said the book may insult builders, implying that their work gets blown down and that builders are like pigs. They also feared that pigs could offend Muslims. (Read more about it)
More recently, seasoned American diversity author and educator Ellen Wolpert wrote an article titled “Rethinking ‘The Three Little Pigs,’” for the journal Rethinking Early Childhood Education, that encourages educators to avoid the tale.
“It belittles straw and stick homes and the ‘lazy types’ who build them,” she writes. “On the other hand, the story extols the virtues of brick homes, suggesting that they are built by serious, hardworking people and are strong enough to withstand adversity. Is there any coincidence that brick homes tend to be built by people in Western countries, often by those with more money? That straw homes are more common in non-European cultures, particularly Africa and Asia?”
If this catches on, anyone who dares question the wisdom of the hyper sensitivity — or those who don’t get the memo in time — may get tarred and feathered as racists. When radicals play “gotcha,” almost anything goes.