It’s hard to say whether or not the use of ‘hug the tar baby’ in Press Secretary Tony Snow’s first conference had any hidden racial significance or if he genuinely felt that the racist historical significance of the word was unimportant (well maybe not, but I’m trying to be generous here people). What isn’t hard is to see that Mr. Snow’s use of such language is the epitome of what people are talking about when they say ‘privilege’.
Having said that, I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program… the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm or deny.
First lets look at the etymology of ‘tar baby’. I decided to do a bit of informal ‘research’, which means not extensive, but did consist of about 3 or 4 hours of looking up every possible twist on the phrase and words to get all references I possibly could from the Internet. It seems that many feel it was initially a reference to dark skinned first generation slaves, most recognize it most easily by the late 1800′s story by Joel Chandler Harris of Uncle Remus and the Br’er rabbit series. In one particularly good academic critique of the stories, I found a really interesting interpretation which surfaced regularly in my search, but none so eloquently as by Julie Zbeda:
This story suggests that Br’er Rabbit has dual sides as both the victim and the aggressor. He also has a prideful nature as is shown when he refers to himself as “respectable” in comparison towards the tar baby. As racial and moral characterization is a big part of the Br’er Rabbit stories, the relationship between Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby may represent the subtleties of race relations, in which the tar baby is like a Sambo – an uneducated slave who is mentally bound to slavery as well as physically bound – the ideal creation of Br’er Fox, who represents the slave owner. This also poses the question of who is the dominant and who is the subordinate. Although Br’er Rabbit thought himself higher in the social order than the tar baby, when he gets stuck in the tar, he is at the mercy of the tar baby and its creator, Br’er Fox. This represents a warning for what happens when a position of authority is assumed by a slave in a society where it is not permitted. This tale functions as a commentary of plantation culture in regards to the conflicts between the slave and the master, and between the slaves themselves.
The fact is, most people understand that words can have many meanings (despite tar baby having questionable racist connotations to its very etymology) and can change significantly in different contexts. The question then becomes, is the need to use a word or phrase so crucial to making your point that no other word or phrase will do. In a great thread on the Democratic Underground, Fishwax summed it up pretty well by first addressing that Joel Chandler Harris had actually admitted in his introduction that the stories were done in partial defense of slavery, and that ultimately context does matter:
I think one of the chief flaws of the “outrage at the outrage” in this case is that it relies on a belief that context obliterates connotation. People have appealed to Tony’s context of use as if it were 100 percent conclusive, the final word. But context is most useful for determining denotative meaning. Connotative associations extend beyond the specific topical context of the conversation.
I read that and it really hit home for me. Why would the press secretary for the President of the United States be incapable of seeing if nothing else, that particular reference might cause discomfort. The answer for me was pretty clear – white privilege is about being shielded from discomfort and racism that isn’t experienced by them. I guess it’s hard for a middle-aged white man who lives a comfortable and cushy life to relate to why references that have had racially negative origins might bother some people. It’s also a pretty glaring example of cognitive dissonance. And really, it’s a pretty big stretch to call it necessary or defensible.
Here’s a few other questionable points about Mr. Snow’s history when it comes to the issue of racism and the need for sensitivity to other races and cultures:
The O’Reilly Factor on June 30th, 2005: Snow said that calling racism and poverty systemic is “making excuses” for cultural problems in the U.S. rather than trying to understand the situation of the poor. “When you say systemic, it sounds like you’re trying to make excuses…in other words, it sounds like you’re giving people a copout.”
Fox News, Sunday, October 30th, 1998: Snow said, “I love Thanksgiving. It is the least politically correct of all our holidays. It celebrates the old-fashioned bourgeois family. It praises God, who’s creator non grata in most of our public schools, and it bespeaks our national faith in higher truths and greater goods, as well as in our neighbors and ourselves.”
Chicago Tribune, November 20th, 1991: As a White House speechwriter Tony Snow defended former KKK leader David Duke, saying, “Duke is talking about things people really care about: high taxes, crummy schools, crime-ridden streets, welfare dependency, equal opportunity. A lot of politicians aren’t talking about these things.”
Fox News, Sunday, October 5th, 2003: Snow spoke about Rush Limbaugh’s controversial comments that Donovan McNabb was overrated and that reporters are disposed towards black quarterbacks. “The comment wasn’t racist,” Snow said, “but that did not stop political opportunists from accusing Rush of bias.” Snow added, “Racism isn’t that big a deal anymore.”
Stormfront Article, December 31, 1999: An article written by Tony Snow with a debunking theory of Kwanzaa for Stormfront that is archived on Martinlutherking.org. The site itself is worth looking at to get a better understanding of who Mr. Snow has worked for and with in the past – it’s a Martin Luther King hate site and that is littered with examples like this (please keep in mind this quote is not from Snow):
The political affiliations of Martin Luther King that Sen. Jesse Helms so courageously exposed are thus only pointers to the real danger that the King holiday represents. The logical meaning of the holiday is the ultimate destruction of the American Republic as it has been conceived and defined throughout our history, and until the charter for revolution that it represents is repealed, we can expect only further installations of the destruction and dispossession it promises.
And to finish this rather winding ramble of mine off, I found this quote from the Stormfront.org forums in defense of Tony Snow:
Anyone in the newsmedia who attempts to give a fair balanced presentation on the White Nationalist movement can expect to be slammed by the powers-that-be. We all know who those powers are and no elaboration is needed.
So while Tony Snow and the hill might feel comfortable in blithely brushing off the elephant in the room, I’m just sayin’….