A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.
“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.
This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr.Poilievre to apologize for the usage:
“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.
Mr.Poilievre responded by saying he was not even aware the term had racist associations. The truth is that the honourable member is right. Time magazine weighed in on this subject only three years ago when Mitt Romney ran afoul of the same misunderstanding:
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.”
I think this is precisely how Mr.Poilievre intended it, and indeed only a fool would take it to mean anything differently in context, particularly as it was directed at Mr.Ignatieff, who for all intents and purposes, is white. As such I think it would be absurd to apologize for the fact that the noun, tar baby, has a double meaning within historical urban slang.
It is somewhat similar to the controversy over “niggardly”, as Steve Janke reminds us, in particular the white aide to D.C. mayor, David Howard, who had to resign because blacks thought it was a racial slur [which, of course, it isn't]. Amazingly, Mr.Howard escaped that controversy by using his influence in the gay community, as he is a homosexual himself, to extricate himself from this sticky situation.
The reason niggardly isn’t exactly the same, is that “tar baby” does have a racial meaning in urban slang, and I can attest to personally hearing this used many times before. As the urban dictionary defines it:
Tar baby is a synonym for [n-word], except that it is only used in bigoted manners, whereas [n-word] can be a sign of respect, if the speaker is also African American.
It comes from a children’s story in which the dark skin and seeming ignorance (caused by a lack of schooling) of slaves were explained by the idea that black children were baptised in tar, which made them dark and dumb.
The above definition is most certainly a pejorative in American urban slang, although it’s certainly dated, and it does refer to black Americans. Having said that, the correct and proper usage in the Canadian vernacular refers to the original definition, and the one found in the Oxford American Dictionary. There is no reason for Mr.Poilievre to apologize. And just to cement this evidence, Stephen Taylor provides a voluminous amount of references on his blog.