Not having much else to do, some people on the left are up in arms about Tony Snow using the phrase “tar baby” during a recent press conference.

Again, I would take you back to the USA Today story, simply to give you a little context. Look at the poll that appeared the following day. While there was — part of it said 51 percent of the American people opposed, if you look at when people said, if there is a roster of phone numbers, do you feel comfortable that — I’m paraphrasing and I apologize — but something like 64 percent of the polling was not troubled by it. Having said that, I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program — the alleged program — the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

“Ahh! He said ‘tar baby!’ Quick, take me to the fainting couch!” Sheesh. Here’s how the site wrote up this issue:

Based on the context of the term, we believe you meant tar baby to mean: “a situation almost impossible to get out of; a problem virtually unsolvable.”

But in “American lore,” the expression tar baby is also a racial slur “used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people.” Use of the term has resulted in demands that people be fired.

As Random House notes, “some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.” Now that you are no longer at Fox News, you may want to take them up on their advice.

And since “some people suggest” it, by gum, Tony Snow had better jump to it! Again, sheesh! The phrase “tar baby” is best known from the “Uncle Remus” stories, written down by Joel Chandler Harris over 100 years ago. In the story about the tar baby, Br’er Fox sets out a humanoid figure made out of tar as a trap for Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit loses his temper and proceeds to get stuck in the tar baby.

Br'er Rabbit and the tar baby

The tar baby story is not particularly offensive, but it is the phrase’s later use as a mean-spirited racial epithet that has caused such controversy. And since the story mentions three situations where people were in danger of being fired over their use of the phrase “tar baby,” let’s look them over. Since there are two possible meanings for “tar baby,” it only makes sense to examine each story to see if the person who used it intended to refer to a sticky situation or to a racist epithet.

In the first story, we don’t have the actual phrase involved, but there is this telling sentence: “Although the e-mail recipient, Rigsby, is white, the term “tar baby” is commonly known to be a racial slur.” Yeah, but why send a racial slur used against black people to a white person? I’m willing to bet that if we saw the original memo, we would find ample evidence that the writer was thinking of a sticky situation.

In the second story, “Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier described the St. Cloud Human Rights Office as a ‘tar baby.’ Lenzmeier says he used the term to describe a ‘sticky’ situation. But some leaders of the African American community have complained, saying the phrase is also considered a racial slur.” Again, this sounds like a legitimate use of the phrase “tar baby” to describe a sticky situation that gets worse. But I like the response from Professor Christopher Lehman.

But Lehman says over the years, “tar baby” has also been used as a racial slur. And because of that, unless you’re telling the story of Br’er Rabbit, it’s wise to avoid the term.

“I would say, because of the connotations, that it has as a racial slur; it would be one phrase that should be avoided unless you’re talking about the Joel Chandler Harris story, in and of itself,” Lehman says.

How about we apply a little maturity to the “tar baby” phrase, mmmkay? If it is being used to describe a sticky situation that is hard to get out of, we can assume it’s not a racist term. If it is being used in a derogatory way against a black person, we can assume that it is a racial slur. Isn’t that simpler than automatically freaking out?

In the third story, Mayor Pro-Tem John Buhman stated that “he used the term to describe a piece of property that would be difficult to develop.” But the mere use of the phrase was sufficient for councilwoman Dee Wright to call for his head on a platter resignation. This automatic freak-out over the phrase brings to mind the way some people react when they hear someone use the word “niggardly.” Here are two examples:

A fourth-grade teacher at Williams Elementary School has received a formal reprimand for teaching her students the word “niggardly,” the teacher’s son said Tuesday.

Last week, teacher Stephanie Bell said she used the word “niggardly,” which means stingy or miserly, during a discussion about literary characters. But parent Akwana Walker, who is black, protested the use of the word, saying it offended her because it sounds similar to a racial slur. (from The Wilmington Star, Star-News Online, 09-04-02)

Student Amelia Rideau is upset that her professor used the ‘N-ardly’ word at least twice: Once on Jan. 25 during a class on 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and once in a subsequent class to explain the word’s meaning. Ms. Rideau was outraged, and is demanding the UW implement a speech code which would punish anyone using what she described as ‘offensive’ language – including the ‘N-ardly’ word. She urged the university not to require proof of intent before punishing verbal villains such as her professor.

According to the Star Tribune: “Upset about the word’s similarity to a racial slur, Rideau talked to her professor, who then explained the word’s background, she said. On Friday, the professor repeated the word and defined it for the class, Rideau said. Angry he revisited the topic after she asked him not to, Rideau began to cry and stormed from the room. On Monday, she brought three black friends with her to the class for support, she said.” (from the Associated Press, via Star Tribune 02/03/99)

Neither the real definition of the word, nor its origins are sufficient to change the minds of people who are determined to be offended because it “sounds similar” to another word. The controversy has nothing to do with the facts — it has everything to do with their feelings.

Besides, the best way to react to someone offending you is not to ask for them to be fired or implement a speech code. You get better results if you claim the offense is against Islam.

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