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)

So what’s interesting is not that Rose said what he did, but why he said it — why it isn’t unusual to hear it implied that for black people, slumpiness, slurriness, stinginess and single parentage are hallmarks of being acceptable members of the race. In 1946, poor Italians revolted against seeing their lives glorified on-screen, but Rose sees black guys with two parents and clicks his tongue.

This sense of separatism, as I tried to get at in my book Losing the Race, makes sense only from people who feel that they are victims on a fundamental level, that the mainstream culture is malevolent, and thus something that a good person — an authentic person — must model him- or herself against.

But the question is whether white America is so opposed to black people today as to create that sentiment, and all indications are that it isn’t. There is racism, sure — but how much? In 1900, would you have preferred to be an average-looking black person or a 400-pound white person with acne? How about today? That difference matters. And remember, the sheer existence of certain degrees of discrimination does not normally lead human beings to build an identity around victimhood. Typically, people resist as glum a self-image as that of the victim.

This is why many young women ironically resist the feminist label, uncomfortable with the idea that they are casting themselves as powerless. Studies have shown that individuals can live in denial about how much oppressive tendencies affect them as opposed to other members of their group. Psychologists even have a name for it: minimization. In one sample, women were fully aware of sexism and wage discrimination in their workplace but tended to be unaware that they themselves were suffering from it just as the other women were.

There is more going on with comments like Rose’s, then, than racism. The most acceptable way of phrasing it would seem to be “slave mentality”; one is to say that people like Rose have internalized the evaluation of the oppressor. But we have to finesse that, because the oppressor isn’t oppressing anything the way he used to. To imply that today’s “subtle” racism is enough to create this profound self-denigration (word chosen deliberately) is to imply that black people are weak. We will not do that.

Rather, Rose’s slave mentality comes from a kind of strength. Slavery and Jim Crow discouraged a strong black image, but eons ago. Yet that meant that even when things changed, black Americans didn’t have a strong base for a new self-image — upon which, we grasped at an alternate way of feeling good about ourselves: underdoggism. To be a noble victim is a way of feeling important, real. It is, in its weird way, a reflection of black strength, our reflection of the human quest to feel proper and strong, sought furiously as a mental survival strategy in the absence of much else.

Yet one of the things that this strength translates into is Rose’s finding, in an unguarded moment, a black man with two parents suspicious, uncool, a prodigal of sorts. This is the underdog’s version of self-regard, and it makes, in its sad way, perfect sense. Perfect but sad: sad because it means that for too many, black identity is focused to a grievous extent on our relationship to white people rather than on something coming from within ourselves. It means a racial identity that, no matter how fiercely asserted, cannot be truly prideful because it’s about being in the down position. It also discourages curiosity about what lies beyond the locality of purportedly “real” blackness — which is, after all, most of this wide world.

It is, in fact, a conservative position, looking backward rather than forward and unwittingly embracing a self-image foisted upon us by the enemy. This is, among many things, quite unsurprising, given black Americans’ history over the past 400 years; and as sad as it is, we should all know what it’s “about.”

John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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