Wednesday, July 23, 2008

John Kerry and Tar Baby

Via: Black Political Thought

Okay folks, what the hell was John Kerry thinking using the term tar baby?  It is just as racialized, and just as negative as the word nigger.  It has no place in our discourse and his usage of this term has been ignored.  I don't care what his intent was, when those words fell from his lips without any thought, what he did was reduce black people to descriptors of negativity.

Many people believe that as long as they avoid the word nigger they are not using hateful racist language towards blacks and that is simply not the case.  Due to the ingenuity of humanity we actually have a myriad of words that confer the message that some people are less than simply based on the colour of their skin.  What we need to do is be hypervigilant in our choice of language to ensure that our everyday conversations do not reinforce the idea that it is acceptable to other for the sake of convenience.  A white man using the term tar baby is racist period.  Kerry is an educated man, and as such I am not convinced that he suffers from an inability to use metaphors that are not based in race.  There are no free passes, and Kerry in this case is guilty of using racist terminology.

What I find particularly telling is that when Jesse Jackson said nigger it created a virtual media storm, yet when a white man uses the term tar baby which is equally as damaging to blacks there is silence and zero criticism.  Why are we to assume that his intent was not to harm, and Jesses was  malignant internalized hatred, or that it was overtly hypocritical in nature. This is a perfect example of white privilege working to discipline bodies of colour while at the same time assigning themselves a false ally status. Words come with a specific history and meaning, and this must be recognized if we are to  decolonize language. As long as terminology like tar baby can be used without criticism, blacks will continue to occupy the bottom of the racial hierarchy pyramid.


49 comments:

Meadester said...

Renee,

You seem like a really nice person, otherwise I wouldn't care. But I feel sorry for you that your self-esteem is so fragile that you can be offended by a term as silly as "Tar Baby" when there was obviously no racist intent.

Is it hypocritical for me to minimize this while condemning Michael Savage and his Anonymous parrots. Maybe so, but I think not because Michael Weiner did have malicious intent. I am working on a post about this for my own blog, having some difficulty finding the right words to say exactly what I mean. In the meantime check out this: http://www.wrongplanet.net/posts72386-start15.html
"archdude" is the nickname I use on Wrong Planet.

Renee said...

@meadster....it does not matter what his intent was when he used a racist term...period. It is highly hypocritical for you to take issue with Savage and not Kerry, furthermore fixating on what Savage said about autism and ignoring the rest of his offensive message shows that you are more than willing to privilege one ":ism" over another.

Meadester said...

I don't see how a term can possibly be racist without racist intent. Words are just sounds made by vocal chords (or ink on paper, characters on a screen, etc.) They mean nothing without the intent behind them. But, you wouldn't be you if you didn't jump at every possible opportunity you can find to be offended. And, you being the way you are does make your blog interesting. I just hope you are happier in real life than the way you come across in cyberspace.

BTW, about "the rest of Savage's message" I have been blissfully unaware of it til now. I've seen him interviewed on TV before and found him to be too much of a grouchy, know-it-all ass to really care about the substance of what he said.

Renee said...

@Meadster you can view the whole audio of his commentary here.

I don't see how a term can possibly be racist without racist intent. Words are just sounds made by vocal chords

Actually no words have meaning regardless of the intent of the speaker. Words are how we understand and order our world. When a prominent white make such as Kerry uses this kind of language he is denigrating a whole race of people. Would it have been okay for him to say nigger in the same context?

Cooper said...

I had to listen through it twice to even understand what he meant. His intent was not to be racist of course, but the continued use of terms which are indeed steeped in racism, shows a very large problem, and this problem is especially noticeable in white men. White Liberal men are particularly obtuse when it comes to this despite their ideological leanings. It is their very obtuseness which means there is a long way to go because the still really do not get it.

eatmoregranola said...

White Liberal men are particularly obtuse when it comes to this despite their ideological leanings. It is their very obtuseness which means there is a long way to go because the still really do not get it.

Seriously, so true! It's like they think simply by being liberal, their work in the world is done and they're beyond reproach. It's a Get Out of Jail Free card. "Buuut I'm a liberal! I couldn't POSSIBLY be racist" (or misogynist or classist, etc...).

And yeah, simply not intending to cause harm simply isn't enough -- if I hit somebody with my car accidentally, it doesn't mean that the person I hit magically won't be hurt just because I didn't mean to hurt them.

Larry Geater said...

Here is the difinition of Tar Baby from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

tar baby
n. A situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle oneself.


[After "Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby," an Uncle Remus story by Joel Chandler Harris.]

That definition and others similar to it are the only ones listed on dictionary.com. He was oviously using the word in its original meaning. If we were to accept your usage rules no white man would be able to refer to the card suit spades as spades because that name had been used as a racial slur at one time. These are among those words with multible meanings that George Carlin used to do about half an hour riff on. "It is OK to prick your finger, but dont finger your prick." Context is all and he was obviously not making a racialy insensitive remark.

Renee said...

Simply stating that a word has several meanings does not absolve Kerry of guilt. In its common usage tar baby refers to a black female, and it is meant to be a derogatory term. I will not engage in esoteric shenanigans when clearly the cultural definition in no way supports your suggestions. If a word can be construed as racially offensive there is simply no excuse for its continued usage when the English language is full of other verbal options.

Larry Geater said...

The racist meaning of Tar Baby is a secondary meaning just as the racist mening of spade is a secondary meaning. The Senator was obviously usning the word in the dictionary meaning and was probably ignorant of the racist meaning of the term. He is not a dumb ass and so would avoid knowingly usning a racist term. What you know is not nessicarily universaly known. This kind of gotcha on an inocent mistake distracts from real issues of race.

Renee said...

@Larry He is not a dumb ass and so would avoid knowingly using a racist term. What you know is not necessarily universally known. This kind of gotcha on an innocent mistake distracts from real issues of race.

Tar Baby as I used it is the common vernacular for the term. The dictionary reference that you use is far more a rare reference. Tar baby as a negative referential for black females is decades old I am sure that you are quite right that the senator is not a stupid man however that does not mean that he owns his white liberal racism. BTW what I deem to be racist against WOC is far more accurate than your determination simply because I inhabit the body that I do. This is one of those times Larry when you listen to views of POC and put aside your inclinations.

Larry Geater said...

@Renee BTW what I deem to be racist against WOC is far more accurate than your determination simply because I inhabit the body that I do. This is one of those times Larry when you listen to views of POC and put aside your inclinations.

I refuse, just as you rightly would, to bow to people attacking my race rather than my argument. The color of my skin has not one thing to do with the quality of my arguments.

Renee said...

@Larry
This is not an attack on your race my point is that there are things that you cannot understand simply because you do not live the life... that is why I tell you that there are times that you have to listen to what bodies of color have to say about racism. It is a perspective that you as a white male will never fully be able to appreciate.

Larry Geater said...

I am saying that you cannot have a conversation about race if either side gets to invalidate the others arguments based on race. I can understand if you explain it to me. If you deny that then you are denying that understanding can ever be reached between the races.

Just because you are blck does not mean you are right. It is just as posible in any given situation that your blackness causes you to percieve a slight where none exists as it is that my whiteness causes me to mis one where it does. The only way we will ever come to a mutual understanding is if niether of us gets to invalidate what the other said because of race.

Renee said...

@Larry I have explained repeatedly. I understand that the intent of Kerry was not to use the term in a racist way however tar baby in its popular colloquial usage is racist..period..therefore if he were a racially sensitive man he would refrain from using terminology that could be construed as racist.

Meadester said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Larry Geater said...

he were a racially sensitive man he would refrain from using terminology that could be construed as racist.

@Renee - Even if he were not racialy sensitive he should not have used the term because it was poor oratory that distracted from his messsage. It was an ignorant choice of words in the extreme. I think we can all agree on that point.

Renee said...

@Larry Greater yes we can agree to that.

sardonic sister said...

The way I understand it, Kerry is supporting Barak Obama. Obama is a black man, right? So, how is Kerry racist?

I think that the term "tar baby", as used in context of what Kerry said, refers to the book titled "Tar Baby." He isn't speaking of a black woman, therefore, is it a racial slur? I say not. I am white. A racial slur used towards me is "cracker." If someone says, "Hey Cracker!" I will get offended. If they say, "Hey, pass me that box of crackers" its completely different.

By the way, I think nit-picking like this is part of the problem with the democratic party. I am a democrat, but with everyone scrutinizing everyone's words, how can we win?

Can we please focus on winning the election in 2008?

Renee said...

@Sardonic sister....No one called Kerry a racist I said that his usage of the term is racially insensitive regardless of the context that it was used in. Since language is how we convey our social beliefs what and how we say are extremely important. At the very least it was racially insensitive considering that it is most commonly used as a racial slur, whereas when people say cracker it most often meant as a soda cracker.

sardonic sister said...

@Renee...can one be accused of using a racial slur without being accused of racism?

Also, making statments like "...it is most commonly used as a racial slur" is ridiculous. Have you done research? Have you had people complete surveys on the usage of the word? FYI: I work with African American youth and families, and each time I hear the word cracker it *is* being used as a slur. Be careful with the statements you make.

Also, the focus keeps returning to the "context" of the statments Kerry made. If he was using it as a racial slur, he would have been referring to an African American person, no? He was referring to the dictionary context of the word.

So, while the U.S. seems to be debating this statement by Kerry, children remain hungry and uninsured, homelessness is still an issue, and we are still at war with Iraq. Can we focus on a real issue, please?

daomadan said...

"If we were to accept your usage rules no white man would be able to refer to the card suit spades as spades because that name had been used as a racial slur at one time."

And what's wrong with that? Language and words hold power and I think it appropriate that white men be called out when they use racist terms whether they are ignorant or not. As Renee stated, whether he was using tar baby to mean "a sticky situation" then why not simply say "sticky situation" without resorting to archaic terms that hold racist connotations? Why are we so quick to defend Kerry? Because he's "on our side" as a liberal and a democrat? No one is infallible and I think it is right to call him out on using this sort of racist language.

daomadan said...

"So, while the U.S. seems to be debating this statement by Kerry, children remain hungry and uninsured, homelessness is still an issue, and we are still at war with Iraq. Can we focus on a real issue, please?"

Please refer to #4. Deflect attention away from the specific criticism: http://web.archive.org/web/20070108084300/http://coffeeandink.livejournal.com/607897.html

Meadester said...

Larry, I basically agree with everything you say here. On your own blog where you call Obama "our candidate" I would not include myself, if I vote for a presidential candidate I'll probably write in Ron Paul. I find myself in an odd postition defending John Kerry or for that matter John McCain. But fair is fair, no matter what I think of their politics in general.

Renee is not the spokesperson for all people of color. I doubt if ALL are offending by the use of the term "Tar Baby" in this context. I don't know that there is even any proof that a majority are.

However, while I don't see any evidence of Kerry being racist, there is no doubt that some liberals are. A few years back I saw a psychologist who was as far left as you can get without being a communist. He reveled in his identity as a "persecuted" Jew like he was doing a Woody Allen routine, but when it came to talking about other people's ethnic background he was like a left-wing Archie Bunker (though generally much less funny). He would make a lot of comments about Irish Catholics, which I didn't mind but found stupid. He would also tell me that some obnoxious butt-heads who happened to be Irish Catholic were my people, which I did find kind of annoying(I am not currently a practicing Catholic but I was at the time; my ethinc background is actually mixed Irish and Italian, but he seemed to always forget the Italian because he had trouble with the concept of the melting pot). He also had ways of identifying Pennsylvania Dutch people on sight (Pennsylvania Dutch for those who don't know are not actually Dutch but descendants of early German immigrants to PA) When I asked him how he could tell them apart from other people of German descent he told me his list of attributes. I don't remember any except one, according to him they are all fat. I do remember thinking he sounded a lot like Anti-Semites talking about how to identify Jews.

But the worst thing he ever said was a question he asked just before I moved into my current residence. This place, a condo, is the first home I ever owned. He asked about the development that it is part of "They don't have any Black people there do they?" In fact they do but they are decent, hard working people not ghettoized gang bangers. I was too stunned to respond with the harsh criticism he deserved. I did tell him that I would rather live near well-mannered Black people than rude, destructive, or even criminal white people (who certainly are not in short supply). I also asked why he would say such a thing - his response, "They can drive down property values." How the fuck can they drive down property values if they're already there?! For a man with an advanced degree he sure was a dumb-ass.

Eva said...

It's entirely possible that John Kerry was ignorant of the double meaning of the word. I have never heard the term "tar baby" used as a racial slur and, until reading this blog, wouldn't have recognized it as such. If Kerry was aware of the double meaning, he was indeed being insensitive. If not, I'm not sure he's at much fault.

sardonic sister said...

@dao...the link didn't work for me. ??

I am not attempting to deflect away from the arguement at hand. I am stating that while people seem to be really committed to discussing this issue, other more pressing issues are occuring. In the list of priorities, for me at least, this is not at the top.

Meadester said...

Note: I don't mean all people from the ghetto are "ghettoized gang bangers." But I think everyone knows the people I'm talking about. I know, it's classist. I think classism, is legitimate, though. That's because while there are poor people who are decent hard-working people doing their best to improve their situation, and there are some rich people who are destructive assholes, in general social class is a good predictor of behavior.

AR said...

You say the racist meaning of tar baby is decades old, but the non-racist meaning is at least a century old, and indeed, originates in African folklore.

daomadan said...

I hope this link works.
http://web.archive.org/web/20070108084300/http://coffeeandink.livejournal.com/607897.html

While more pressing issues may be occurring, at this time and place we're having a discussion about use of the word "tar baby". Renee has touched upon homelessness, the uninsured, etc. But this specific topic is about Kerry and tar baby and it is deflection to bring up more "pressing" issues when this obviously affects people to see a former presidential candidate using such language.

daomadan said...

Damn link. But, the Angry Black Woman has great resources on racism and how to participate in threads on it.

Eva said...

I should add: whether or not Kerry knew about the double meaning of the term, I think it's important to address that what he said can be interrupted as racially insensitive, so that he or anyone else doesn't use the term again. I'm just not sure he's at fault is he didn't know of the double meaning.

Larry Geater said...

And what's wrong with that?

It would make bidding in bridge difficult.

why not simply say "sticky situation" without resorting to archaic terms that hold racist connotations.

Ignorance

I think the cry of "racism" is not warranted here. I can understand that others might disagree. There is nothing I have said here in defense of Kerry's use of the word 'tar-baby' that could not be said about the use of the word 'niggardly' or 'spade'. In the case of the word 'spade' used in a non racial sense I think even the most racially sensitive would think it ridiculous for us to have to rename the card suit. In the case of the word 'niggardly' I believe that even a racist troll would know in his heart that it is an indefensible racist word regardless of context. I think that 'tar-baby' is closer to 'spade' on this scale of offensiveness than it is to 'niggardly'. I think it is a word where we should take the context into consideration and point out to the offender that he could have chosen his words better but not get on the same level of outrage that we reserve for flagrant offenders. It is possible for a person to be ignorant enough that they intended no offense with 'tar-baby' a defense that is not available to the user of the word 'niggardly' because nobody is that stupid.

Matthew said...

Just FYI, If your links are too long, you can go to http://www.tinyurl.com and it will give you a short URL you can use instead.

I shrank your link to this one: http://tinyurl.com/5dw3rq

---------------

Incidentally, I think that while 'tar baby' isn't exactly like 'spade' in terms of having dual uses where one is much more common, it's a far cry from 'n____r'.

Any word can be said with hate. A racist can spew invective against "those damn African-Americans" just as easily as he can against Blacks or Darkies or whatever other slur you care to name. In cases where such words have multiple meanings, I'm not okay with ceding linguistic ground to racists.

Renee said...

@ sardonic
I am not attempting to deflect away from the argument at hand. I am stating that while people seem to be really committed to discussing this issue, other more pressing issues are occurring. In the list of priorities, for me at least, this is not at the top.

Clearly you have not scanned this blog, it is dedicated to bodies that matter. This means that I focus on poverty, healthcare, sextrade workers, racism, abelism etc..

@Larry
I think the cry of "racism" is not warranted here. I can understand that others might disagree.
Here we go with the racist language..the term "cry racist" is offensive it is just as offensive as telling a woman that they she is "crying rape."

@Matthew I'm not okay with ceding linguistic ground to racists.

It is not a matter of ceding ground. No one is calling Kerry a racist for his use of the term tar baby however it does have racial connotations. Agreeing to this means purging our language of phrases or words that may have the possibility to cause offense. Being racially sensitive means trying to appreciate it when a minority says that this terms other me.

Larry Geater said...

@Matthew

Here in Memphis I have heard racist use the lable 'Democrat' to mean black. Being a white Democrat it took me quite some time to figure that one out.

Larry Geater said...

Here we go with the racist language..the term "cry racist" is offensive it is just as offensive as telling a woman that they she is "crying rape."

I certainly hope you are using hyperbole. But if that wording is offensive I will try to rember to avoid using it in the future.

Meadester said...

I guess since "shovel" is a synonym for "spade" in its original usage, we rename the suit in the deck of cards shovels. And of course "boon" can always be replaced with "blessing" or "favor." But what about eggplant, is there an acceptable word to use in place of that racist term? Should T. Boone Pickens be forced to change his middle name? How about everyone else with the words Boone or Koon as part of their names (these are fairly common surnames)? Is raccoon an acceptable word or should that be changed. Needless to say I'm sure we're not allowed to refer to hats made from raccoons as "coonskin caps." "Raccoonskin cap" sounds kind of awkward but it will have to do assuming "raccoon" is acceptable. I don't know the answers, since I am merely a white man. All I know is that I should clear every word in my vocabulary with a POC.

Lindsay said...

I'm disappointing in Kerry for using the phrase, but also in mainstream media for virtually ignoring his use of the word. Compared to Jackson's recent use of a racial slur/term, it really demonstrates the double standard the media has for black people. I'm not sure exactly where I saw it in the past few days, but the blog compared headlines describing arrested women and their children, and the phrasing used to describe black women was far harsher than for white women. Or how during Katrina, white people were "finding supplies" and black people were "looting."

It seems trite and just semantics, but it's a pervasive issue that's just as serious as homelessness and things like that. I mean, if we want to better society, we have to address it on all levels - not just the "serious" ones.

slysly77 said...

I've never thought "tar baby" was a racist term, maybe because I read the Uncle Remus tales as a kid. But I thought there might be an 'age' element to this so I asked my parents. My father, who's 76, saw absolutely no racial connotation in the word. My mother, who's 64, however, said she was brought to tears by the word as a kid.

As some of the above posters have said, there are innocuous words like "cracker", "prick", or "bitch" (when used to refer to female dogs) which have legitimate meanings, but have illegitimate meanings when used to denigrate people. I suspect, from my mother's southern heritage, that the denigrating use of the term may be driven more regionally which would explain why its not universally considered to be a racist term. It is certainly not equivalent to "nigger", whose use is so bad that even the unrelated & perfectly legitimate word "niggardly" has been banished from polite discourse.

I didn't take offense to "tar baby" when Tony Snow said it. I wasn't offended when Mitt Romney said it, and I see no reason I should be offended now that John Kerry has said it. (And even mom wasn't offended at Kerry's usage).

sardonic sister said...

@ Renee. No, I haven't scanned your blog, nor will I ever again. Feministing.com directed me here. I thought I would find an intellectually stimulating new blog to read. However, after reading your tirade, I am not convinced that any musings you have will be of any interest to me, regardless of how chocked-full of misrepresentations, political correctness, and emotional they are. However, I am thankful that I discovered Larry Geater through this site.

Renee said...

@sardonic...just in case you are still floating, to accuse me of not focusing on "important issues" and not scanning the blog is ridiculous...It seems you are only interested in reading something that agrees 100% with your point of view. Womanist musings is about about raising conversation about difficult issues not parroting the popular view. If you can't handle the debate don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. I am certainly not always right but at least I know that I am dedicated to giving voice to people that society has a tendency to marginalize.

ouyangdan said...

Renee, first off, wonderful post. Thanks for the link at my place.

Words mean things. Period. It doesn't matter what Kerry's intent was, he carelessly used a word that is seriously loaded w/ racist meaning. I am from the far North, and I have only ever heard it used in a racist manner. For fuck's sake there is a reason that you can not find "Song of the South" in stores in it's original form--b/c it is so racist. I remember my grandmother reading me the "Brer Rabbit" story as a child, and even then she explained to me that it is not an acceptable term to use (even though the story clearly uses it's dictionary meaning). I do not accept that it was a randomly chosen word for a children's story, considering the time it was written. There are no coincidences.

Kerry was careless, just like when he (accidentally) told kids they had best study, or that they would wind up in the military Clearly being a veteran it was not his intent to insult members of the military, but he has a bad reputation for not thinking about his words.

The word is racist, pure and simple. Regardless of his intent.

And how privileged some of your commenters must be to assume they get to tell us what are important issues to discuss! I am sorry if their brains can not handle thinking about more than one issue at a time, but I can definitely multi-task.

Well written post.

Ash said...

So, you are the racist. After all, you repeatedly said "White man". Does this mean it's ok for a black man to say "tar baby" and "nigger"? Just not whitie. I'm sick of your racism I'm tired of white kids not getting into college because of race quotas, can we have an all white school, or is that racist too? Of course it is. Ans speaking of "free passes" how much did you have to pay for your school?

Kelly said...

Renee, thank you for a thoughtful post and for your perseverance and patience in trying to have an intellectual conversation by addressing so many of these ridiculous and infuriating responses that reek of un-aware privilege.

I don't understand why it's so hard for people just to listen to a perspective and try to understand that even if that word has no history to them, and seems neutral to them that it is still possible that word might be oppressive to someone else. And then is it so hard to avoid the use of that word and to be able to critique a public figure that does not adhere to an inclusive language?

For all of those people who think "it's not a big deal" or that it's "not a priority", then why not just change the way you speak? if it's not that hard then just change it.

I was also linked here by feministing.com by the way. and I love your blog so far....

Renee said...

@Kelly, thank you and welcome to Womanist Musings

jessilikewhoa said...

damn renee, i loved you at feministe and put you in my links but havent been able to keep up. now i follow the link from feministing and i see the sort of dumb fucking trolls you have to deal with and i wish i had the time to read you every single day so i can tell you how brilliant you are.

and as a pasty white girl, id like to tell every white person here bitching about "cracker" and being singled out for being white to study up on privilege and learn what racism actually is. its a system. if you have white privilege it means that the system is working for you, not against you. i could care less if a handful of POC have called you cracker, cos that wont stop you from finding a job or finding housing or get you pulled over while driving.

renee, sorry to ramble, i just despise ignorance.

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