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What is an Uncle Tom?

"Uncle Tom" is a slang term used to label an African American who is seen as behaving submissively or subserviently towards white people.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 March 2014
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The slang term “Uncle Tom” is used in the African American or black community to describe someone who is perceived as overly ingratiating in interactions with white people. The term is meant to imply that the person is subservient and excessively deferential, behaving as someone of a lesser class or social status rather than treating whites as equals. Usually, this term is used as an insult.

The origins of this slang term lie in an 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In fact, the title character of the book is anything but subservient and accommodating, being unafraid to stand up for himself and his values. Stowe apparently wrote his character with the intent of turning him into a role model, but over time, his depiction was twisted on stage and screen, until the original identity of the character was overshadowed by a stereotypical cringing black man who is eager to please the white “master.”

The term appears to have entered common usage in the 1960s and 1970s, when the growing civil rights movement led many African Americans to stand up for their rights assertively. Members of the movement were encouraged to speak out and to refuse to allow themselves to be cowed by people with white skin. Acts of civil disobedience, such as sitting at “whites only” lunch counters, were committed with the goal of bringing civil rights to the forefront and promoting equality, and many of these measures were successful.

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People who were afraid to participate in the civil rights movement began to be accused as being Uncle Toms, with critics claiming that they were bringing down all African Americans by behaving subserviently to the white community and cooperating with whites. The term also began to be used as a pejorative epithet for people who chose mainstream paths, like academic careers, even when these individuals worked hard to change the system from the inside. Anyone who was complicit with some aspect of white culture could be criticized, ranging from people who complied with segregationist policies to young black professionals.

As a general rule, this term is viewed as very offensive, and it is primarily used within the African American community. For someone outside this community to use the term, as Ralph Nader did in 2008 when referring to then-Senator Barack Obama, would be a gross breach of etiquette. Within the community, the use of "Uncle Tom" as an epithet varies considerably, reflecting the diversity of African American culture and language in the United States.

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anon924350
Post 13

I'm here because of the movie *8 Mile when "B-Rabbit" calls his friend "Future" an Uncle Tom.

anon257775
Post 11

I recently read "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I shed many tears, especially for Uncle Tom who was a strong, proud black man, who loved his family and his people. He took beatings for the people whom he worked with in the cotton fields, and he died a hero who would not be broken by the cruel white overseer.

I wish Oprah or Spike Lee would bring back the real Uncle Tom so that this bashing will stop. Uncle Tom was a hero, and the book helped to pave the way for the rights and freedom we have today. Read this book, please, to know Uncle Tom.

anon237959
Post 10

The term Uncle Tom most importantly refers to President Obama.

anon184588
Post 9

The term "Uncle Tom" is usually applied to a black person who strays from the line pursued by white liberals who have the soft bigotry or purporting to believe that black people cannot possibly make it without affirmative action. It includes those blacks who don't want to stay on the "plantation" of victimhood.

@Post 2: ROFL, I love how you use the word soft. People who use the word "soft" online, are the biggest sissies who are intimidated by mosquitoes. why don't you enlist in Army Infantry and fight in Afghanistan, if you claim to be so tough?

My friend is in the Green Beret and he knows racism when he sees it as well as Uncle Toms, which is a person who tries to betray their race no matter what, and hold their subservient status in hopes that it will secure them because they are very timid and insecure. it has nothing whatsoever to do with higher aspirations and being a successful person, which many in the African-American community are minus the subservient attitude. George Washington Carver, Arthur Ash, Michael Jackson, are proof of this.

anon164094
Post 8

Seek your own truth. Let go of the past. Scratch the term uncle Tom from your vocabulary. Be who you want to be. There is only one race to worry about. The human race.

anon159614
Post 7

I think that a uncle tom is not proud of his own race.

anon39167
Post 6

I have always seen/heard Uncle Tom used by blacks as an insult to other blacks who they think are acting too much like "white" men, in other words, they are trying to be successful by playing the game of life like a white man. I guess this was similar to when American Indians left the tribes and lived in white man's buildings and clothes during the 1700s and 1800s. I guess the idea was that they had sold out the values of their racial culture's origins and had adopted a new set of values to live by. JKS

anon36976
Post 4

Uncle Tom is used by lazy black people. I 've been told by other blacks that if they are successful in any case dealing with non black persons. Grades, work or anything else.

Diva
Post 3

In my opinion, an Uncle Tom is a black person who holds whites in high esteem and looks with disdain at their black brothers and sisters. These are usually the same brothers and sisters whose backs they they stood on to get to where they are. They treat their own with more prejudice than whites and they never reach back to try to help elevate their own people. They will however, bend over backwards to do anything for someone white. They are blinded to the fact that those white people whom they laud care just as little for them as any other black. What a sad "epithet" . I pray that we (black people) will wake up and stand together as a people to support, nuture and strengthen one another lest we die out because our generations have lost all hope and are in jail or in an early grave from drugs and bullets.

anon36860
Post 2

The term "Uncle Tom" is usually applied to a black person who strays from the line pursued by white liberals who have the soft bigotry or purporting to believe that black people cannot possibly make it without affirmative action. It includes those blacks who don't want to stay on the "plantation" of victimhood.

anon36821
Post 1

But im a bit confused,that whether uncle sam was a noble soul who along with his dog,ventured out with a lantern to save people lost in jungles.He is portrayed with a bunch of keys,a hat as he also manned railway crossings during british raj. please confirm.

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