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.
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.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.