What is it with whiteness seeking to regulate what POCs determine as racially and ethnically offensive? The latest in this phenomenon can be found in the comment section of Think Progress’ story on Rep. Doug Lamborn’s racist comments about working with President Barack Obama. Lamborn made the comments on a talk radio show:
“Even if some people say, well the Republicans should have done this or they should have done that, they will hold the President responsible,” said Lamborn said Friday during an interview on a Denver radio station. “Now I don’t want to even have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get, you get it, you know… you are stuck and you are part of the problem now and you can’t get away.”
Lamborn did eventually expressed regret (no apologies, of course) for his comments.
Of course, we saw whiteness at play as people felt the need to declare if the term is racially insensitive or not. One comment from Think Progress:
“Ignorance of history is just as bad…..
And you’re correct – the Left has become hypersensitive about any comments made by the GOP – yet ignore comments made by the Left ( Remember when Obama called African-Americans “Mongrels” ?)
I’m amazed at how people get so excited over things so meaningless….”
Another from The Huffington Post:
Oh look, more dog whistle shenanigan
The people on the right will, of course, defend it as not being racist, much as they did with the “Obama the magic negro” thing, or the bit where they photoshopp
But yeah, it’s just the left playing the race card. Every time I hear that lame @ss excuse, my eyes roll back so hard, it flings me out of my chair.
The only thing more ubiquitous
Another comment on Balloon Juice:
(In response to a person’s asking a black professor his opinion on the term) Not exactly an unbiased authority.
TNC has this dead on. It is pretty unlikely that Lamborn has much exposure to the OED’s references or Updike or anything other than the Uncle Remus stuff, and while that’s very much in the grey zone as a whole, the Tar Baby is not a particularly racist story. It’s a 19th-century southern white writer’s rendition of an African folk story processed through American slavery, but it isn’t about race. Lamborn is an Oklahoma GOPer so the odds that he isn’t a racist are extremely low and the odds that he isn’t a waste of organic chemicals even lower, but THIS bit of rhetoric isn’t really racist. It’s just southern. If southern folk references are decreed as always racist, I think we’re done, and not in a good way.
Revisionist history at its finest…
It should be noted the above comment was referring to a 2006 article written by Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, which he mulls whether the term is racist:
Is tar baby a racist term? Like most elements of language, that depends on context. Calling the Big Dig a tar baby is a lot different than calling a person one. But sensitivity is not unwarranted. Among etymologists, a slur’s validity hangs heavily on history. The concept of tar baby goes way back, according to Words@Random from Random House: “The tar baby is a form of a character widespread in African folklore. In various folktales, gum, wax or other sticky material is used to trap a person.” The term itself was popularized by the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, in which the character Br’er Fox makes a doll out of tar to ensnare his nemesis Br’er Rabbit. The Oxford American Dictionary defines tar baby much like Romney used it, “a difficult problem, that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.” But the term also has had racial implications. In his book Coup, John Updike says of a white woman who prefers the company of black men, “some questing chromosome within holds her sexually fast to the tar baby.” The Oxford English Dictionary (but not the print version of its American counterpart) says that tar baby is a derogatory term used for “a black or a Maori.”
In reference to that comment about the phrase being “just southern.” Is it southern like the Confederate flag? Or Jim Crow? Or de jure segregation? No, tar baby isn’t just some “southern folk reference” that white people tossed around referring to sticky situations. Let’s not hide behind geographic slang and insult the intelligence of black folks by glossing over the racial implications of referring to a black person as a tar baby.
Second, these sort of comments are a shining example of how whiteness seeks to erase and redefine what a person of color determines as offensive and derogatory. Whiteness gives white people and its practitioners the authority to feel they can decide what a person of color can and should take as offensive.
While this is nothing new, its prevalence seems to have multiplied since the Obamas moved in to the White House. This mindset among those who operate under the realm of whiteness is another form of its attempt to dominate and colonize the minds of POCs.
While they are inherently unable to determine what is or isn’t racist by their societal status, whiteness gives white people and its practitioners the belief that they, not POCs, are the authority figures on race, racism and what’s racially offensive. The experiences and opinions of POCs are essentially erased, downplayed and viewed as an exception rather than the rule.
What frustrates many POCs is how whiteness often invades safe spaces and attempts to thrusts its world view on racism and racially insensitive comments onto the minds of POCs as if that opinion is the authoritative commentary on race relations. While whiteness emboldens them to do so, white people do not have the authority to tell me or any other person of color what we should see as offensive or racially/ethnically insensitive. In a perfect world in which whiteness didn’t dominate unsafe and safe spaces, the racist nature of the term tar baby would be accepted as truth by white people and there wouldn’t be this push by whites to define for POCs what is or isn’t racist.
Unfortunately, whiteness isn’t that easy to defeat.