Last week, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney got into a bit of hot water when he described the Big Dig as a “tar baby” and said that his political advisors had warned him not to seek control of the project. When several folks pointed out that this term had become a racial epithet, he apologized — but no one at the event had complained.
Back in May, when Tony Snow held his first briefing as Presidential Press Secretary, he also used the term when he deferred from even discussing hypothetical intelligence programs. He was also excoriated for this, and has pledged to not use the term again.
This is silliness, almost on the scale of the infamous “niggardly” incident of 1999. The “tar baby” is a perfect metaphor for a situation where you should simply walk away from, a situation that will hopelessly entangle you should you touch it, that you will not be able to extricate yourself from. Its use as a racial epithet is the actions of the racist, the ignorant, the hateful, and to surrender the term to them is to grant them a victory.
Ironically enough, I think the most recent racial use I’ve seen of it has been against Condoleezza Rice. But it’s fair game to use racial epithets against conservative blacks.
It’s been brewing for a long time. My college paper once got into hot water over a headline about “japping out.” The author of the headline was slammed all around, and there was even some fighting over who was insulted — was it the Japanese, or Jewish American Princesses?
I reject the racists’ claiming of “tar baby,” as I do the idiots who see racism in “niggardly.” The next logical move is to go after other terms that might be mistaken as racist. I see complaints about “spic and span,” “chink in the armor,” “dancing a jig,” and “honky-tonks.”
Racists and bigots deserve no quarter, no victories. To surrender perfectly innocent words and phrases is to grant them far more influence than they should have.