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Wednesday, May 17

tar baby

My liberal credentials are pretty solid. I know racism when I see it. I grew up in the South and have seen the street signs that warned blacks about being in town after sun down. I saw separate movie theater entrances. I heard stories of my great uncle in the Klan. I heard the stories of my father firing shotguns loaded with salt at blacks coming out of church.

Having said this, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow's use of the term "tar baby" to describe a difficult situation is not racist.

The term comes from Bri'er Rabbit stories. In many, many stories I heard as a child, characters made babies out of tar. Bri'er Rabbit made a baby out of tar to trap Bri'er Fox. My mother told me about a rubber doll she was given and the doll melted and stuck to her face when she napped with the new doll. Sticky children, sticky dolls, and sticky tar babies.
The truth of the stories is that the trickster Bri'er Rabbit, thought to be a black character, triumphs over the allegedly smarter, white character Bri'er Fox.

Are brier patches inherently racist, too. What about cotton patches?

This reminds me of the misunderstandings people have had over the word "niggardly." It means stingy and ironically, illiberal.

Real racism is so common in our language that we think nothing of the "paddy" wagon, to "Jew" someone down, or to "gyp" someone as in "gypsy."

Think Progress is making much of a public official in the Houston area being fired over his use of "tar baby." That is simply a misunderstanding of the word. We have also had public officials use the word "niggardly" and been reprimanded for it. Neither word is offensive unless people are unaware of the use and meaning of the word.

Random House says that the term is a derogatory one for blacks. Not once in my life have I ever heard anyone use the term that way and I have heard every ugly term for every person any Southerner could conjure. When people in the South want to use a derogatory term for blacks, they use "nigger."

Get a dictionary. And a copy of the Bri'er Rabbit stories. Not everything in Southern folk lore is racist. But this isn't the first time ignorance has cast an eye in that direction.

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