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Old Uncle Tom’s Cabin and all

May 1, 2018

I came across a Twitter spat yesterday. (Doesn’t quite have the ring of “I saw eternity the other night”, does it?) It began with a tweet from someone called Steve Brookstein, a singer who was an X-Factor winner some years ago. (Nothing wrong per se with former reality TV stars tweeting opinions, of course. Why shouldn’t we?) He tweeted that Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, was “an Uncle Tom”; and Majiid Nawaz, correctly in my view, described this as a “racist slur”; Brookstein defended himself by saying it was a “token” appointment; and everybody piled in.

There is a range of insulting expressions to describe people of colour who don’t stay in their lane: who achieve positions of power within the establishment, who have the temerity to criticise elements of their own culture, or who simply champion liberal values. As well as Uncle Tom, such insults include Oreo, coconut, porch monkey, house nigger and native informant. Just writing them down makes me realise how ugly and, well, racist they are. The implication is always that people from ethnic minorities cannot think for themselves: there is a narrative they must adhere to and if they do not they must have selfish or cowardly reasons. It is meant to be a wounding, ad hominem insult, implying that someone is a traitor to their race – as though that race must be understood as a monolith, with no internal dissent allowed. Criticise Javid’s policies or opinions, by all means; but it is racist to suggest he shouldn’t be holding them because of his colour.

People who use these terms do not think they are being racist, of course. They would vehemently deny it. But that means nothing. It is perfectly possible, in fact it is common, to have racist views without acknowledging or even realising it. Witness the common phrase “I’m not racist but…” which invariably precedes some racist statement. Or the nauseating cliché “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” (which is only ever said in response to an imputation of racism). Whenever I hear this smug claim I want to say: “But are you quite sure? There are 206 bones in the human body. Are you confident that none of your metatarsals are racist? What about the bones of the inner ear? You’d better interview them all, to be on the safe side.”

If you really wish to be confident that none of your bones are racist, I’d simply recommend not using insulting terms like Uncle Tom.

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  1. Avirup Chaudhuri permalink

    I heartily concur. Mr Javid and I are far apart politically but attacks on him of the kind you describe are beyond the pale (no pun intended ). To suggest that all people of the same ethnicity should follow some sort of unwritten party line is, as you say, racist.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    The kindest interpretation is that he misunderstood the meaning but it’s an unpleasant term. It was when Ali used it to describe Joe Frazier before their fight and it is now.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Curious that the character of Uriah Heep should be an almost exact contemporary.

  4. Phyllis permalink

    I resemble that remark! I spent a large part of my teen and young adult years fending off bullies accusing me of such treachery to my blackness Brandon. My heinous crime was to get an education and fail to conform to a black stereotype. Steve Brookstein’s comments were hurtful, racist, irrelevant and unnecessary, but they are far worse when they come from fellow people of colour

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