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Not Everyone Who Disagrees with You Is An ‘Uncle Tom’

No one has an obligation to express, or refrain from expressing, a particular view, merely because they are part of a minority group.

· 11 min read
Not Everyone Who Disagrees with You Is An ‘Uncle Tom’

Uncle Tom. Aunt Jemima. Judas. Aunt Lydia. Kapo. Self-hating Jew. Banana. Oreo. Quisling. Traitor. Sell-out. These are all pejoratives used to refer to someone accused of betrayal. Judas betrayed Jesus for money; Aunt Lydia betrays women for power; Uncle Tom betrays black people for his own protection.

Actually, I’m not sure what Uncle Tom betrays black people for. To know that, I’d have to have seen one of the lost plays that adapted Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel for the stage, and in doing so entirely distorted the character of its main protagonist. In the original book, Uncle Tom is a man of remarkable faith and integrity. (Indeed, there are strong parallels between Uncle Tom’s story and Jesus’s.) Far from betraying other members of his race for his own protection, Uncle Tom refuses to disclose the whereabouts of two escaped women slaves and is brutally beaten for doing so—a beating that eventually results in his death.

There are black characters in the novel who would have been better symbols of the race-traitor archetype, although they make only fleeting appearances. Sambo and Quimbo for example, introduced somewhat late in the narrative, are the black overseers of a plantation.  They use violence and intimidation to implement their white master’s directives: forcing the other slaves to work to the point of exhaustion and incapacity, knowing the master will simply buy new slaves to replace them if they die as a result.

Still, it seems unlikely that mere literary accuracy will be enough to see ‘Uncle Tom’ replaced with ‘Quimbo’ whenever anyone wants to talk about the concept that ‘Uncle Tom’ has come to embody. I want us to think more carefully about when someone actually is an ‘Uncle Tom’ (or a Judas, Aunt Lydia, etc.) and whether the phenomenon is as common as the proliferation of these pejoratives would suggest.

Huck Finn or Uncle Tom?
These great books should be read together, for each illuminates a different part of the American character.

Except for ‘Judas,’ these pejoratives all refer to members of marginalized groups whose words or actions fall foul of the marginalized group’s majority (or vocal minority) politics. The usual accusation is that those targeted fail to hold the line in some way. An ‘Aunt Lydia’ fails according to feminist principles as to how women should relate to other women and advocate for women’s interests. ‘Self-hating Jews’ may refuse to take a stand on, say, whether the Jewish people have a right to a homeland. ‘Banana’ and ‘Oreo’ refer, respectively, to Asian and Black people who are accused of being “white on the inside,” meaning that they have assimilated into white culture or conformed to white standards, rather than remaining true to “who they really are.” Within gender-critical feminism—the minority group politics I know best—women who prop up patriarchy by cheerleading for the sex industry or for gender identity activism are sometimes called “handmaidens”—another reference, along with ‘Aunt Lydia,’ to Margaret Atwood’s fictional dystopia of Gilead (although this is a little unfair to the book’s actual handmaidens, who are, after all, slaves who will be hanged if they step out of line).

There are two separate questions here. One is whether these concepts are fair to their literary or historical namesakes, where these exist.

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