Uncle Tom


noun Disparaging and Offensive.

a black person, especially a man, considered by other black people to be subservient to or to curry favor with white people.
a person who exhibits overly deferential behavior.

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Origin of Uncle Tom

1920–25, Americanism; so called after the leading character in Uncle Tom's Cabin

OTHER WORDS FROM Uncle Tom

Uncle Tomish, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does Uncle Tom mean?

Content warning: this article includes content dealing with slavery and racism.

Uncle Tom is a fictional character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His name has become a highly offensive nickname some Black people use to accuse other Black people of subservient to white people and culture.

How is Uncle Tom pronounced?

[ uhng-kuhl tom ]

Where does Uncle Tom come from?

The abolitionist and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (who was white) published her antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. The book was intended to combat stereotypes of slaves and make white Southerners empathize with its title character, Uncle Tom. That name, Uncle Tom, as it happens, can be found as an epithet for an obedient Black person before the novel was published, which perhaps had some influence on Stowe.

In the book, Uncle Tom is a slave sold to different families throughout his life, but, owing to his kind and generous nature, he remains a devout Christian and loyal to his masters. At the end of the book, Uncle Tom becomes a martyr figure, whipped to death for refusing to give up the location of some runaway slaves.

In its day, Stowe’s novel was enormously popular and influential, even credited in helping Abraham Lincoln, a champion of the abolition, to win the presidency—and even the Civil War. Selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over one million in the U.K., it is considered the bestselling novel of the 19th century.

Not everyone thought highly of the novel, however. This included the pro-slavery camp at the time, as you can imagine. But many Black Americans in the 19th century criticized the character of Uncle Tom as a White vision of the ideal Black person. And so the term Uncle Tom emerged as a term for a caricature of and insult for an obsequious Black person.

In the 1960s, major figures in Black history and culture, including Malcom X and Muhammad Ali, used to the term Uncle Tom to disparage Black people as betraying their race and being complicit in their own oppression.

Major Black figures in recent history have also been called Uncle Toms, including President Barack Obama, actor Terrence Howard in the show Empire, President Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and rapper Kanye West. In each case, the idea is that the Black person is acting like an Uncle Tom (i.e., submitting too readily to the interests of white people and institutions, at the expense of Black empowerment).

Comedian Michelle Wolf (a white woman) controversially extended the metaphor of Uncle Tom at the 2018 Whitehouse Correspondents’ Dinner, likening Trump’s Press Secretary at the time, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to an Uncle Tom for white women: “What’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women?” Sanders was the punchline. Many in the Black community criticized Wolf’s appropriation of Uncle Tom.

How is Uncle Tom used in real life?

Calling a Black person an Uncle Tom is seen as strongly offensive. As a 2011 article on the Black-oriented website The Grio put it: “Short of dropping the n-bomb on someone, there are few things more insulting to many African-Americans than being called an ‘Uncle Tom’.”

The insult suggests a Black person puts the interests of white people before the just and fair treatment of the Black community. This can be in politics or in everyday life. For instance, a Black person may be called an Uncle Tom for letting white friends use the Black-reappropriated forms of the N-word. More extremely, a Black person may also be called an Uncle Tom if they demonstrate a certain middle-class bearing (e.g., sound like a white person or engage with white mainstream culture).

 

In the 2010s, some in the Black community pushed back against the Uncle Tom epithet, arguing the character in the novel wasn’t a race traitor as much as trying to survive in an oppressive system. Others have worked toward reclaiming the epithet given the fundamental goodness of the character. Nevertheless, the portrayal of Black people themselves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is widely viewed as racist today.

Tom is sometimes used as a short form of Uncle Tom. Note: the extremely offensive slur, coon, is occasionally used in the same way as Uncle Tom.

More examples of Uncle Tom:

“Nadia Brown, professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, thought Wolf’s Uncle Tom zinger was funny but missed the mark for another reason: ‘You can’t say a white woman is being an Uncle Tom if she’s doing what other white women are doing’”

—Vanessa Williams, The Washington Post, May 2018

British Dictionary definitions for uncle tom

Uncle Tom

noun

informal, derogatory a Black person whose behaviour towards White people is regarded as obsequious and servile

Derived forms of Uncle Tom

Uncle Tomism, noun

Word Origin for Uncle Tom

C20: after the slave who is the main character of H.B. Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012