Black History Month is a great time to learn new information. It is also a great time to unlearn information that is false and even detrimental. Today, we are going to debunk the mythology around “Uncle Tom” and why its usage as a slur makes no sense.
Almost every Black person has heard the term “Uncle Tom.” It’s just another on the long list of racial slurs for African Americans. But of all the terms on that list, it’s the one that you REALLY don’t want to be called because “Uncle Tom” is one of the few slurs that is used primarily intraracially … and NOT as a term of endearment. If someone has called you an Uncle Tom, they are calling you a race traitor or a self-hater. The closest synonym, if there can be such a thing for a slur, is the term “house n-word.” Being called a House Negro is in no way preferable to being called an Uncle Tom, however, the origin of that term has a basis in fact whereas Uncle Tom does not.
The term Uncle Tom comes from the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The book, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, may be the single most influential book in American history and is generally credited with being one of the main drivers of the abolitionist movement. The novel centers around, as you might have guessed, Uncle Tom.
By the way the slur is used, one might assume that Uncle Tom was an old, meek, and subservient figure. There is some of that in the book. He’s certainly not portrayed as a Nat Turner archetype. However, in the climax of the novel, Tom is literally whipped to death for not divulging the location of runaway slaves … a fate he willingly accepts in order not to betray fellow enslaved Africans.
In spite of the fact that Stowe wrote Uncle Tom as a strong and loyal character in the book, he has come down in popular culture as a Judas figure. Some of that can be attributed to film adaptations and derivative works around Uncle Tom that followed. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Civil Rights figures used the term to describe Black people who were afraid to standup for progress or worse, willing to stand in the way. Usage during this time is what seem to cement the term in our consciousness.
It is somewhat understandable why this slur has survived for so long. But when you know better, do better. Stating the obvious: We shouldn’t be using slurs anyway. But usage of this particular slur is especially ignorant because the etymology is the exact opposite of what you mean when you say it. When you call someone an Uncle Tom, it sends a message to people that you never actually read the book.
Uncle Tom doesn’t need me to come to his defense. He is a fictional character, but use of his name as a slur is the perfect example of why slurs are ignorant to begin with and how we perpetuate literal ignorance every day without even realizing it.