The Wikipedia may have some credibility problems. But its anonymous contributors have certainly kept the online encyclopedia up to date on the controversial term “tar baby”: Gov. Mitt Romney’s weekend faux pas has already been memorialized.
Is “tar baby” a racist term? Certainly some people think so, although there seems to be enough haziness that Romney deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Globe plays down the reaction to Romney’s remarks, relegating it to the lower-right-hand corner of the City & Region front. The Herald goes nuts, blowing out page one with a huge headline that reads, “THAT’S OFFENSIVE.”
Yet the definition of “tar baby” provided by the American Heritage Dictionary suggests no racial overtones, simply calling it “A situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle oneself” — which is the connotation Romney was trying to convey in referring to the Big Dig.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes a tar baby as a:
sticky tar doll, the central figure in black American folktales popularized in written literature by the American author Joel Chandler Harris. Harris’ “Tar-Baby” (1879), one of the animal tales told by the character Uncle Remus, is but one example of numerous African-derived tales featuring the use of a wax, gum, or rubber figure to trap a rascal.
We’re getting closer here, but the offensiveness has still not been established.
Perhaps the best explanation is that the term has taken on an offensive glow over time. The Wikipedia, for instance, says, “The term may also carry a negative connotation. It has been used as a derogatory term for dark skinned people (such as African Americans in the United States or Maoris in New Zealand). It can also refer to an especially dark skinned black person.”
Toni Morrison, who wrote a novel called “Tar Baby,” tells the Globe, “How it became a racial epithet, I don’t know. It was my attempt to rescue the phrase from its low meaning. I wanted to annihilate the connotation and return the meaning to its origins. Apparently, I haven’t succeeded.”
No, she hasn’t.
I don’t know whether Romney was speaking off the cuff, but if he was reading prepared remarks, well, shame on his staff. It was only a couple of months ago that White House press secretary Tony Snow took some heat for using the phrase “tar baby.” So it’s not as if this was a complete unknown.
Still, I’m inclined to give Romney a pass. Unless he says it again.