Last night on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow defended his use of the phrase ‘tar baby’ during his press conference on Tuesday. The expression is “used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people,” according to Random House, and “some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.”
Snow told Hewitt his use of the phrase was completely innocent, but that it would no longer be part of his “toolchest of rhetorical devices”:
Well, apparently, what’s happened is, apparently some people are unfamiliar with the pathways of American culture, and don’t realize the old Uncle Remus story where somebody hugs a tar baby. …
I’ve decided, though, because it’s a classic case of, I think, somebody trying to sort of pick a fight. I’ll probably take that out of my toolchest of rhetorical devices, rather than having to explain a hundred and fifty years of American culture.
Some high-profile conservative bloggers have helped defend Snow over the term. Kevin Aylward of Wizbang, for example, claimed that Toni Morrison’s use of the phrase for one of her novels was evidence that ‘tar baby’ isn’t commonly used as a racial epithet:
Is the term used as a derogatory term for black people? Occasionally, yes. Is more commonly used otherwise? Absolutely, as Kim Pearson’s examination details. In fact Toni Morrison has a Nobel prize winning novel tittled Tar Baby, which was a modern take on the fable.
Actually, Toni Morrison has explained her thoughts on the term:
Tar Baby is also a name, like “nigger,” that white people call black children, black girls, as I recall”¦. At one time, a tar pit was a holy place, at least an important place, because tar was used to build hings”¦. It held together things like Moses’ little boat and the pyramids. For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together.
Apparently Toni Morrison is ignorant of how the term has actually been used in American culture.