A primer on “Uncle Tom”!

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Arguably Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are probably the most recognizable ones. And you can probably throw in Ben “Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery” Carson.

And there’s the former Chair of the National Republican Committee Michael Steele and Congressman Tim Scott. Add in the lesser known Mayor Mia Love, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Janice Rogers Brown, Larry Elder (pause and Google them if they are unfamiliar) and there you have it: a short list of black conservatives! They’re loved by the “right,” are frequent guests on Fox News and in many cases are loathed by the “left.”

Now even lesser known are the black conservatives we know personally who, for a variety of reasons – among them the stigma – choose to hide their political inclination at all costs for fear of being labelled an “Uncle Tom” (or “Aunt Jemima”). Those I know in this category are for the most part great people who would rather not lose friends or damage relationships because of what they believe. They’ve learned to remain silent or deftly switch the subject when talk of politics come up over dinner or in the corner barber shop.

What many black conservatives complain of are being labelled “Uncle Toms” if they dare not march lock step with traditional black orthodoxy, liberals or the democrat party. They establish themselves, in the words of Clarence Thomas, “as daring to think differently” because they espouse conservative values!

Okay, let’s dig a bit deeper about this “Uncle Tom” thing. What is it about the term “Uncle Tom” and why is it such a pejorative? Why is it as rage-inducing as the “N-word?” Having been called both, I can attest to the anger the words evoke.

For answers I turned to Philip H. Herbst, “The Color of Words; An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States,” and before that Wikipedia.

By definition, an “Uncle Tom” is an African American in-group slur for a subservient black man, especially one overly accepting of white values. “Uncle Tom” has its origins in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Stowe’s character Uncle Tom was depicted by abolitionists as a faithful, patient, obedience, suffering slave.

“I’ve agreed to sell Tom.” “What! Our Tom? – that good                     faithful creature! – been your servant from a boy!”   -Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The image of Uncle Tom that has lingered over the years is that of a gap-toothed old man, docile and loyal only to his white masters.

According to Wikipedia,  “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet for a person who is slavish and excessively subservient to perceived authority figures, particularly a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people; or any person perceived to be complicit in the oppression of their own group.

Writes Herbst in his “Color or Words, “The term was used contemptuously by African Americans as early as the 1940s for those among them who seemed overly deferential to white people. During the 1960s, especially, it was a label for those black people who continued to call themselves “negroes,” supposedly out of racial self-hate.

“Boot licker,” “handkerchief head,” “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside), “sellout,” “Acting white” and “‎House Negro” are other pejorative words for the “Uncle Tom” slur.

Now patterned after “Uncle Tom” are a number of other terms adopted by other ethnic groups to identify group members who are overly accepting of mainstream society, or are willing to abandon their ethnic past. These include Uncle Ahmad (Arab), Uncle Jake (Jewish) and Uncle Giovanni (Italian.) Similarly, Uncle Tomahawk is used mainly by Native Americans for one among them who emulates white people and is subservient to them.

Are there “Uncle Tom” equivalents for women who are perceived to have “sold out” other women, who mask their femininity to make them more acceptable to men, who are harder on other women and not men in the workplace?  I’ll leave those questions to a future article.

Stay tuned!

(c) Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story-teller, trainer, senior associate with Diversity Wealth and member of the Cross Cultural academy. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, the American Diversity Report, New York-based Catalyst, and has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the HR Magazine. He can be reached at terry@diversitywealth.com or wwhoward3@gmail.com

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One comment on “A primer on “Uncle Tom”!”

  1. There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where the most important thing will be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around things like that, but I am sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls feel the impact of just a moment’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

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