By Rabab AlAjimi
Civil rights activist and famed American Reverend Jesse Jackson once said, “America is not like a blanket – one piece of unbroken cloth. America is more like a quilt – many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven together by a common thread.” In a country like the United States of America, it is unarguable that there is a plethora of diversity that is only increasing in breadth. With this diversity, however, comes a story behind every person’s migration to this land of freedom. African Americans were brought to this country for the purpose of enslavement in 1619, which lasted for a whopping 245 years. It existed in America longer than it hasn’t (National Geographic Society). What this leaves behind is generations of trauma for African Americans today, which can be mirrored (most likely not in severity, but) by any minority in the United States. Most minorities in America have found a balance between patriotism and activism for their rights as an objectively marginalized group of people. There are others, however, that have turned to self-deprecation and victim-blaming, and those are the people that are most commonly referred to as “Uncle Toms. ” An Uncle Tom is generally defined as a person of color or a member of other marginalized groups (LGBTQ, disabled, etc.) that is excessively obedient or servile to white people. This essay will delve into the background and definition of the term “Uncle Tom” and will use two famous women, Stacey Dash and Asra Nomani, avid supporters of America’s objectively racist president, as case studies for the question: What makes a person an Uncle Tom? It will stretch out the phrase “Uncle Tom” and apply it to instances of self-loathing and disidentification between these two women that are not just racial, but flat out identity denial.
The phrase “Uncle Tom” stems from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which illustrates the lives of several slaves living in the South, namely Uncle Tom, who is a gentle and faith-driven man who is sold a few times in the duration of the novel, moving more and more South with each auction. He eventually falls into the hands of a brutal slave owner who orders him to whip another slave, which he refuses to do and eventually gets beaten to death because of. Initially, this novel took the United States by storm when it was first released. It was considered the pioneer of public anti-slavery opinion, inciting some of the most aggressive controversy across antebellum America (Delbanco). The novel was thought to have been sympathetic to slaves and to portray them as humanely as they have ever been portrayed in art in the United States, however in the late nineteenth century, the character of Uncle Tom began to be publically shamed by pro-abolitionists and civil rights activists. One of the first prominent figures to disavow the message of Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was famed civil rights and pro-abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass, who shamed the character for being docile and excessively subservient as an enslaved black man (Deblanco). The reason activist’s paradigms of Uncle Tom shifted, according to University of California, at Davis Professor of African-American Studies Patricia Turner, is because of the way that this novel was depicted in theater. When this novel was fitted for theater, producers of the show saw it was more fit to portray slave characters as funny and servient yet dim, almost entirely losing the positive characteristics of the main character, Uncle Tom. This kickstarted the negative connotation of “currying to the favor of white people” that exists contemporarily when referencing “Uncle Tom.”
In modern times, the complex of Uncle Tom has been depicted in movies and television shows, with blaring examples such as Uncle Ruckus in the popular Adult Swim show The Boondocks, who is an old black man that has a cringe-worthy anti-black/pro-white mentality. The term Uncle Tom has also been used to describe people of color in public platforms who denounce civil rights activism or support figures that promote bigotry and racism. A person who has been the butt of this insult as of recent is a woman named Stacey Dash. Stacey Dash is a black actress, most known for her role in Clueless, who recently declared herself as an ultra-conservative and actually worked on the women’s board of the campaign of Donald J. Trump. It has been talked to death, but it must be iterated that Donald J. Trump ran in an alt-right platform, praising law enforcement agencies that promote police brutality that disproportionately affects people of color and has gained the support of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party of America. Seeing as a woman of color had a public platform, and chose to use her voice to promote a man who himself promotes ignorance and bigotry rightfully brought negative attention to Dash. Conservative news platform Fox News has been known to give supporters of right-wing politicians a platform on their newscasts, so naturally, Dash was given a pretty hefty platform to discuss her political views. She was even given a position in the network’s daytime show Outnumbered, in which she brought a great amount of controversy with her often lewd and vulgar commentaries on liberalism, anti-Trumpers, and even former President Barack Obama, the comments on the latter having been the cause of her suspension from the show. Dash was one of the first celebrity endorsers of Donald Trump, even prior to his nomination by the Republican Party. On March 19th of 2016, Dash was brought on Fox News to discuss her views of the election and her cemented endorsement of Trump, explaining to viewers why she feels the way she feels. On the topic of women’s support of Trump, Dash rants, “I don’t understand why women would be against him. He wants to improve the economy, he wants to, you know, lower taxes, he wants to have a strong military, he wants to do all the things conservatives want, so I don’t understand why women would be against him.” The argument Dash makes is plainly vague, unrelated to the subject-matter of women and a red herring fallacy, in essence. Trump’s unfavorability to women, at the time, was largely due to insensitive and derogatory comments he had made about women, ranging from comments he made about Carly Fiorina’s face not being “fit” for presidency to Megyn Kelly having “blood come out of her wherever” because she was doing her job and questioning him during a Republican debate. Dash reuses the same argument twice in the duration of this clip, reiterating that Trump is her choice because he wants a “strong military,” “low taxes” and a “better economy.” She offers no specific rebuttal to the questions being asked of her regarding not just women, but people of color, to which she responds in reference to illegal immigrants not having a right to being unhappy with Trump because they are “criminal,” wholly avoiding the instance in which Trump calls all Mexicans “rapists.” The version of Uncle Tommery that Dash exhibits is one of woeful and lazy ignorance, as can be seen in this interview, because she does not address valid concerns regarding the clear hypocrisy of her being a woman of color and supporting Donald Trump and instead uses red herring fallacies to divert attention to things she is comfortable discussing. It is unclear what Dash’s motives were in supporting Trump (maybe the limelight, seeing as her career peaked in 1995), however it is clear that her support of Trump is rehearsed and unthorough, making her not just a “white sympathist” but a self-loathing black woman who cannot clearly and concisely defend her support of Donald Trump.
In contrast, there are people of color like Asra Nomani, who support Donald Trump, but have clear and concise reasoning for it, making it more straight-forward to assess the reasoning behind their alleged Uncle Tommery. Asra Nomani is a Muslim, immigrant woman who teaches at Dartmouth University and wrote a long proclamation about why she voted for Donald Trump on the Washington Post. She makes many of the same points in her interview with Fox and Friends, the very same conservative network that Dash was on consistently discussing her views, on November 14th of 2016. She discusses her quarrels with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as,
“I’m a single mother, I’m a woman of color, I’m a Muslim, and yet I feel like we have betrayed liberal ideals by putting forward this political correctness and identity politics that makes it so that we don’t talk about the ‘Islam’ in the Islamic State and the trickle down of Obama’s policies related to health care, mortgage refinancing, they didn’t help me in my life … As a Muslim, one of my greatest fears is Islamic extremism, it broke my heart when I saw that Hillary Clinton knew that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are financing the Islamic State and other Sunni radical groups as revealed by WikiLeaks, yet they took that money, that “birthday gift,” and other donations for the Clinton Foundation.”
Nomani brings up valid arguments regarding Islamic Extremism, being that Hillary Clinton took dark money from Middle Eastern countries that do indeed support Islamic terrorism. Nomani also discusses how the administration of Obama did not help her as it promised it would during his campaigning. This is an example of logical reasoning behind not supporting a certain candidate. What Nomani fails to do, however, is explain why she chose to endorse Donald Trump. Nomani chose to explain her support for Trump by avoiding discussing his true legitimacy, rather discussing the seemingly valid illegitimacy of his opponent and predecessor. This is different than the kind of arguing Dash had, but it is not necessarily better because although Nomani was able to articulate specific reasons for why she did not want to vote for Trump’s opponent, she was not about to defend her choice in Donald Trump. Nomani and Dash both use red herring fallacies to defend their support of Donald Trump: Nomani choosing Hillary Clinton as a scapegoat, and Dash using vague, generic descriptions of his policies and pointing to illegal immigrants as having no rights to dislike him as scapegoats. When analyzing what makes an Uncle Tom and Uncle Tom in these two cases, it is clear that the general definition of “currying to the favor of white people” is too straightforward. It is much more insidious, being that they both divert attention from the uncomfortable question of why they would support someone that has directly and indirectly targeted all facets of their being, as women of color. This leaves the only answer to the question of what makes an Uncle Tom an Uncle Tom as that one must reject or ignore multiple facets of their identity in order to express a certain point, whether or not it is logically valid, for their own personal gain.
The traditional definition of an Uncle Tom almost always points to subservience to white people as the main defining factor, however after delving into the arguments of modern day Uncle Toms, it is clear that the main definition has shifted to being that an Uncle Tom is a marginalized person that self-loathes facets of their marginalized selves. Neither Dash nor Nomani specifically revere white people, but they attack their own people (women, people of color), which in derivative, uplifts white people. Being that this world becoming more diverse with each and every generation, Uncle Tommery has evolved into a more subconscious, insidious trait that affects all minorities, and people within these minorities, whether they be articulate, educated or present valid arguments, as is the case with Nomani, who provides valid arguments that are backed with indisputable evidence. Uncle Tommery has evolved into justifying terrible and unethical actions or concepts by white people for a few good or beneficial ones, such that people like Dash and Nomani gain minimal praise and financial support for stripping themselves of their disenfranchised minority badge.