Uncle Tom

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A young Uncle Tom (right) from the 1st edition of the book
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There’s nothing the rightwing loves more than a black person willing to say black people are the real racists or a queer person willing to say queer people are the real threat. If you're queer or a person of color and you're telegenic and articulate and willing to sell the rancid cum rag that passes for your soul, you'll never have to do an honest day's work again in your life.
Dan Savage[1]

The term Uncle Tom (also House Negro in African American circles or internalized misogynist in feminist circles) is a commonly-used term in social justice circles to refer to members of oppressed groups who devote their time and energy to justifying why their oppression is either benign, preferable, or justified. They're oftentimes commonly used as political ammo by reactionaries to claim that their beliefs are right and that they aren't bigots. It's the ultimate form of internalized oppression or internalized discrimination.

…as much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it, according to the Harvard sociologist David R. Williams. The messaging is so pervasive in American society that a third of black Americans hold anti-black bias against themselves.
—Isabel Wilkerson[2]:186-187

Origin and function[edit]

The term Uncle Tom is derived from the character of Uncle TomWikipedia from the eponymously named novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin.Wikipedia[3] In the novel, African American slave Tom is beaten to death for refusing to betray the whereabouts of two other slaves; the name of one of the slaves, Sambo, became a slur in its own right partly due to this (though The Story of Little Black Sambo,Wikipedia published many years later in the UK, is the most common association, as even though the character is Indian, the name Sambo had come to refer to anyone with darker skin).[4] While he was a hero in the book, the play adaptation portrays him as a cringing lackey of his master.

Malcolm X accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being an Uncle Tom:[5]

By teaching them to love their enemy, or pray for those who use them spitefully, today Martin Luther King is just a 20th century or modern Uncle Tom, or a religious Uncle Tom, who is doing the same thing today, to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack.

Along these lines, Malcolm X famously made an analogy describing the difference between a 'House negro' and 'Field negro'[6] The 'House Negro' as described shared many of the benefits of their Masters and thus were subservient and reluctant to rock the boat while the 'Field negro' toiled in the fields and longed for change. Malcolm X contended that a modern day 'house negro' existed, a modern day Uncle Tom, consisting of black people who identified more with the white establishment than their fellow black brethren.

Oddly enough, before the term "Uncle Tom" arose as an insult, the boxer Jack JohnsonWikipedia was depicted as Uncle Tom in a positive way. A 1910 depiction shows Johnson as Uncle Tom punching out his last owner, Simon Legree, in a clearly positive way.[7] To add to the strangeness, while even being the heavyweight boxing champion could never get him fully accepted into white culture, he was accepted enough (to the point that he married a white woman) that other black people accused him of being a race traitor; essentially calling him an Uncle Tom before that became a slur.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Uncle RuckusWikipedia in the comic strip and TV series Boondocks
  • The character Stephen in the movie Django Unchained[9]
  • The character Clayton Bigsby from The Chapelle Show.[10]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Savage, Dan. Milo Yiannopoulos: Girls Are In Danger When Adult Trans Women Use Public Toilets But 13-Year-Old Boys Can Benefit From Giving Head To Adult Males. The Stranger, February 20, 2017.
  2. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020) Random House. ISBN 0593230256.
  3. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, edited by Elizabeth Ammons (2010). W. W. Norton & Company, 2nd ed. (Norton Critical Editions). ISBN 0393933997.
  4. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Cliffs Notes.
  5. Voices of a Generation: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
  6. Malcolm describes the difference between the "house Negro" and the "field Negro." Speech transcript from Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963 (The Malcolm X Project at Columbia University).
  7. https://www.granger.com/results.asp?image=0109568
  8. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/unforgivable-blackness/rebel-of-the-progressive-era
  9. Django Unchained (2012) IMDb.
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLNDqxrUUwQ