What ‘Uncle Tom’ Really Means

When Jalen Rose used the T-word, he was speaking from the perspective of the strong underdog.

Jalen Rose (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Jalen Rose (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

It’s funny how black strength can express itself. This is my ultimate take on something I know I’m a tad late out of the gate on: this business of basketball player Jalen Rose referring to fellow black players who grew up in two-parent homes as Uncle Toms in the ESPN documentary about the Fab Five that aired this month. This was the most interesting race-related event this March in its way, and I wanted to get a sense of the conversation about it before jumping in.

Yes, Rose’s comment was about strength — but to understand that, we first have to look at what he actually meant. We do not always confine ourselves to dictionary definitions when we speak, as opposed to the more deliberate act of writing — as is evident from the famously creative usages of the n-word. As Rose has said, by “Uncle Tom” he did not mean that players like Hill were somehow selling out the black race. It wouldn’t even make sense.

He was channeling one element of the term “Uncle Tom” — the part about being not authentically black. Think of it as the Cheshire Cat fading away and leaving behind just his smile — or, in this case, the sentiment. It’s common: When it happens to words over time, linguists call it semantic narrowing.

So the question is why a sane black person would feel that poorer is blacker, more “real.” That idea of what is “keepin’ it real” can seem so natural in our times, but this is hardly the default way that human beings conceive of lower-class status. Example: When Vittorio de Sica’s 1946 film Sciuscià (Shoeshine), about hardscrabble shoeshine boys, was released in Italy, many poor Italians resented the film’s romanticization of that way of life, which they thought of as something to escape.

But black opinion today quite often differs from that one, and if we are to ask “What’s that about?” of Rose’s statement, then we have to ask it of a wide swath of people speaking for black America who feel that, for the descendants of African slaves, standards of evaluation must be different from mainstream ones.

They don’t typically say it in so many words, of course. But what is it “about” that so many black teens classify doing well in school as “white” — i.e., racially inauthentic? Or consider that the New Yorker recently quoted Barry Bonds on why he hasn’t been more generous to an impecunious friend: “I’m black. And I’m keeping my money. And there’s not too many rich black people in this world.” In other words, for a black person, it’s OK to be stingy.

Another one: a scholar of Black English venturing, in an oft-consulted anthology of her work, that inquiry into black-American issues ought be “associated with the grass-roots folks, the masses, the sho-nuff niggers — in short, all those black folks who do not aspire to white-middle-class-American-standards.” Rose’s statement was no more mysterious than that one: to him, players like Hill were insufficiently “sho-nuff.”

One more: Remember that reality show from back in 2006, Black. White., in which a black couple was made up as white and a white one as black, and teachable moments ensued? When the black man was teaching the white one how to “be black,” he said that in private, black people are not curious, do not use proper grammar and don’t sit up straight — and he wasn’t really kidding. Rose just grew up drinking the same Kool-Aid.