Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tar Baby of Racial Discourse

Senator Lamborn announced on radio while discussing the debt ceiling problem that “they will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away.”
He later apologized, but I cannot disassociate the image from the man. It’s one more incident that offends my sensibilities. The salt has been poured yet again on the open wound of racism that I experience as a white woman who is married to a black man and the mother of interracial daughters.
Tar baby, which originated in African folklore, became popular in the early twentieth century and was used to describe nasty situations that only grow worse by attempts to solve them. The term is also derogatory and racist, especially as used in the mid-twentieth century.
Language evolves and changes with social and cultural evolution. Otherwise English would be spoken in the same way it originated – a language that is more different than the same as modern English and which sounds incomprehensible to most current speakers of English. Words become obsolete, are modified, pronounced or spelled differently, and some words fall out of favor or become associated with a negative legacy. New words are created to capture advances, new ways of thinking, new things, or someone’s creative verbal play. Other words are added from other languages.
Words can be emotionally charged, used one way and meant or interpreted in another.
I sat at a meeting in the early 1990s as an assistant director of a university department. The meeting was called to introduce the new Dean of Students who had been personally recruited by the chancellor. He stood in front of us, a white man in his forties, well educated, and well-spoken. He talked about the challenges of his job and decided to tell the story of one student’s recent experience to illustrate what he faced on the job everyday.
The story went something like this:
The coed went to a bar with friends and got drunk. She met a male student at the bar who was also drinking. They seemed to hit it off, and she invited him back to her apartment. Her roommates heard noise in her room and went to check on her. They opened the door to discover that their roommate was having sex…
The Dean paused for dramatic affect.
… with a black man.
I felt my hands and armpits moisten, my vision blur, and my heart thud against my ribcage.
The Dean continued the story with what registered in my racing mind as smugness.
The roommates called the police and when they arrived they asked the couple what was going on. Both responded that they were having consensual sex. The man was getting ready to leave. The police said there was nothing they could do since it was consensual. The young man got up, dressed and left.
The next morning the young woman’s roommates asked her if she realized what she had done. Did she realize she had sex with a black man? She called the police and filed a rape report.
I felt a collective gasp in the room and my anger boiled. All the attendants were white with the exception of one young black woman. I raised my hand.
“Yes,” the Dean said and nodded his head toward me.
“You lost the power of the story,” I said, my voice shaking, “when you racialized it.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
I felt my whole body thrumming. I said something like, “the story is about a woman drinking and bringing a stranger into her home. You didn’t mention her race, but mentioned his. You diminished what really happened. You racialized the situation.”
“No, I didn’t,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as if I were a crazy woman, and turning to address the next question.
I gathered my papers together and left the meeting, in front of everyone, before it concluded. I cried all the way back to my office.
That woman put herself at risk. She drank too much, didn’t know the man, and invited him to her home. The danger was not that he was black, but that she was under the influence and had invited a stranger back to her apartment. But I knew the danger that young man put himself in, too. Maybe the promise of sex overrode rational thought. Maybe he had not experienced racism that way before.
Several months prior to the meeting, my husband, my black husband, got arrested. A loving partner, involved father, dedicated firefighter, and talented musician with a college degree in sculpture and music, there was nothing criminal about him.
He was at a Westcott neighborhood bar, situated just beyond the east end of the campus, with friends, and they bought him a couple of beers. A non-drinker, he decided to leave his car and walk the couple of miles home. The police stopped him. They had gotten a call about a window peeper on a street Ronald had not crossed, and they claimed to have followed tracks in the snow that led to him. They told him no blacks lived in that neighborhood even though he was less than a mile from our house and his parent’s house. His parents had lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s, as had Ronald who spent his teen and early adult years there. The police charged him with trespassing, attempted to bump his head against the doorjamb as they put him in the back of the cruiser, took him downtown, refused him a phone call, had his car towed, and told him even if he didn’t do it, they would make sure it cost him money.
The panic I felt as I wondered where Ronald was in the early hours of the morning paralyzed me. He had run-ins with the police before, DWB, driving while black, incidents, like the time he unlocked the door to his Toyota Celica and felt the cold metal of a gun barrel at the back of his head. An officer was holding the gun and said, “Black guys don’t own foreign cars.”
I called hospitals while I waited for word from him, hoping no officer would ring my bell to deliver bad news. Ronald was allowed to call me at 6:00 a.m., just as I had about given up hope that he would come home safe.
The trespassing charges were dismissed. I thought I could file the incident away as another case of racial profiling that ended without anyone getting hurt. Then my graduate intern, who was white and dating one of the white campus security officers, told me a disturbing fact: she had visited her boyfriend while he was working and noticed Ronald’s mug shot hanging in the guard shack. When she told him she knew Ronald, he told her his photo was in every guard shack on campus. Ronald often came to campus to pick me up from work or to have lunch with me, and I worried what would happen if one of the guards recognized him from the mug shot. To my relief, my intern convinced her boyfriend to request their removal.
When the dean told his story at the meeting he sealed my belief that the campus was a dangerous place for people of color, particularly black men, particularly my husband, even though he graduated from there. I was afraid that our daughters would lose their father and I would lose my spouse in some sort of nightmarish misidentification or misunderstanding.
The dean and his story became my tar baby.
I wrote the Dean a letter and asked to meet with him. He was aggressive when we met in his office, frightening. He said he was not a racist, that he never said the word black, only that the man and woman were of different races, and that I must have something personal going on which set me off. I didn’t tell him I was interracially married.
Then I went to the Dean of Social Work, one of the first black deans on campus, to tell him the story. I told the vice president of my division. She was a white woman who became one of the first female VPs on campus. Finally, I filed a complaint against the dean at the EEOC office on campus. The black EEOC officer interviewed other attendees at the meeting and since no one else cited the story as racist, the complaint was dropped. The VP called me and told me to back off. I had become the topic of conversation in the upper echelons of the university. I felt defeated. I wondered how many students would suffer at the hands of this man who had been hired as their advocate and guide.
About a year later, I was at home listening to the university radio station on a Saturday morning. The newscast included a story about the Dean of Students losing his position after the campus women’s group complained about his treatment of coeds who had been victims of date rape.
Soon after I saw an article about him in the newspaper. He had started a home-based business, a Christian family values website.
Twenty years later, I haven’t been able to get loose from my tar baby.
I still wonder what I could have done differently in response to that dean and his story.  What would I say now that I didn’t know to say then? Maybe that I know he tried to bully me in his office the day I met with him, and that his bullying did not change my opinion. Maybe I would have been open about my experiences of racism. Maybe I wouldn’t have looked so hard for allies to come to my assistance.
What I wouldn’t change is how I feel about the way the dean manipulated the story, as if the man’s race posed danger. His racialization of the event distracted the listeners’ attentions from the real problems that come from making poor choices. He planted an image in their minds or awakened one already there. If anything, the story should have been a cautionary tale about overindulgence and instant gratification.
If I had the chance to speak to Senator Lamborn, I would tell him that his word choice was insidious. Consciously or not, he planted a racist and derogatory image in the minds of millions of Americans who don’t understand their own role in the perpetuation of racism in this country. Most people don’t define themselves as racist, but many support a racist, segregated society, a system of haves and have-nots, a particular definition of what an American is that is inclusive of some but exclusive others. Senator Lamborn perpetuated the narrow concept of Americans when he used the term tar baby in conjunction with President Obama.
But liberals aren’t free of the tar baby either. They have stumbled as much as the conservatives. Maybe President Obama, who has stayed mostly above the racial fray, has taught us something about racial discourse. Don’t fight dirty, participate at all times with dignity and respect, don’t let your emotions get the best of you, and acknowledge the truth of your experience.
I’ve not used the term tar baby in conversation before I wrote this, and I plan not to use it in the future. That’s the beauty of language, changing to meet our social and cultural evolution.


  1. Dianne,
    You're absolutely right about the power of language. I am a life coach trained in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, so I understand your concern about the impact of defamatory concepts—although offering an apology can be a humbling experience, it seldom manages to completely undo the damage.

    I always use the well-known example of the “pink elephant” to demonstrate that we create visual images of all incoming information (visual, verbal, and non-verbal) before attaching meaning to it and either responding to it or filing it away in our memory bank, where it could be called upon again for future use. Example: If I ask you “not to think about a pink elephant,” your brain will conjure up the image of a pink elephant before responding to the request.

    We would be living in a better world if we could all remember to use language responsibly. In that respect, the media—considering its mass influence—should be leading the way; but no such luck, it would seem.

    Good luck with your memoir.

    Belinda Nicoll

  2. I'm seeing pink elephants! Thanks so much for your comment, and I wish you the best with your memoir, too. I'll be reading your blog so I can feel a part of your journey!