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What Is an Uncle Tom?

The description ‘Uncle Tom’ is used as an insult within the black community. An Uncle Tom is a black person who, in another black person’s opinion is ingratiating, subservient and deferential towards white people.

As a slang term, with its current meaning, it has totally lost the original meaning portrayed in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This was a leading anti-slavery novel published in 1852 which portrayed Uncle Tom as a man who stood up for himself and his values. He was meant to be a role model for the black community, but his portrayal in film and theatre has been drastically misinterpreted and twisted. The original identity has been replaced by a stereotypical black man who cringes towards and is eager to please any white ‘master’.

The current insulting usage of Uncle Tom began in the 1960s to 1970s during the civil rights movement in the United States of America. Any black people afraid to participate in the civil rights movement especially through acts of defiance and civil disobedience were considered to be Uncle Toms. This criticism leveled against another black person implied that they were holding back the black community. By not participating in protests, they were cooperating with the white people.

As with all slang terms, Uncle Tom can mean various things. Some poorer black people use it to describe rich and successful black people, especially those who have made it through hard work and education. Education is considered the white man’s culture, so black people who strive academically can be called Uncle Toms.

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