In the March 24 issue of The Ithacan, an article was published about Ithaca College students participating in the Alternative Spring Break program through the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs. Along with the piece were a number of images of students posing with their volunteer groups in the midst of their service work. The day the issue came out, we noticed a certain problematic photo, and a day later, it was brought to our attention that members of the campus community noticed it as well.
One of the photos showed Ithaca College students posed on a boat in North Carolina, whose name, printed on the back in blue lettering, was “Tar Baby.”
While it is true we at The Ithacan did not notice the name of the boat until the newspaper was already distributed, that would not have stopped us from printing the image. However, what would — and should — have happened was more of a conversation about what the students were doing there, if anyone else had noticed the name of the vessel — historically known as a racial slur, though online the boat’s owner says it is named after a larger boat called the “Tar Heel” for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team — and what kinds of things could have happened in this situation to avoid this.
So we are having it now.
While only one community member expressed concern directly to The Ithacan, that does not mean it did not hurt others or make them feel uneasy or agitated.
This is a classic example of a microaggression: an action that, while not necessarily intended to be malicious, has a disparaging or damaging connotation and influence. While the phrase “tar baby” has its roots in West African folklore, it has since taken on a more racist connotation in the United States, especially in political contexts, for referring to certain people of color. The boat’s name is a reference to a sports team on paper, but it is hard to believe the second meaning was completely unknown, especially in the South. More likely is that the boat’s name manifested after thinking it a clever double entendre.
As is often the case with microaggressions, no tangible harm was done by a group of Ithaca College students’ getting on a chartered boat called “Tar Baby.” In fact, many people fail to recognize the term as being racist at all. Nevertheless, in some contexts, the potential for giving offense is clear. The best response is not finger-pointing or censorship, but free and open conversation. Every time a microaggression is recognized and discussed, it decreases the likelihood of its happening again.