Uncle Tom & ‘Acting White’

November 18, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Posted in British Politics, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

One thing which marks Sunny out as an admirably tenacious blogger is he flatly refuses to let a controversial issue drop – it was evident in the uproar over his ‘it’s time for brown people to vote tory’ post, and it’s evident again in his series of posts on the madness of the Pilger/Nader left in declaring the President-elect an ‘Uncle Tom’. Here, Sunny relates a personal anecdote about what effect the complexities of ethnic & racial identity have had on his life and it reminded me that, whilst we can argue over over the literal definition of the phrase, it’s what the ‘Uncle Tom’ jibe implies that is most apalling & destructive.

Some context: before Ralph Nader effectively ended his political career by defending his ‘Uncle Tom’ jibe to Fox News, he spent much of his failed campaign for the presidency directly challenging Obama’s ‘black credentials’. Now, saying that Obama won’t do nearly enough for the urban poor is completely above board, but it was the way Nader did it that saw him tumbling into the gutter:

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic Party nominee, of downplaying poverty issues, trying to “talk white” and appealing to “white guilt” during his run for the White House.

[…]

“There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,” Nader said. “Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson?” (emphasis mine)

Just as a point of order, Obama either talked about all those problems Nader lists whilst on the campaign or mentioned them on his website, so much of what he’s saying is just demonstrably false. As for the ‘talking white’ thing, well, I’ll let the Bitch handle things from here:

Black is not a monolith and we do not all think, act, talk, eat, pray, fuck, sing, dance, vote or manifest anger the exact same motherfucking way.

If a black person is running for office that does not automatically mean that she or he is going to make affirmative action, poverty and pay-day loan scams the foundation of their platform. For the record – black America is also complex and there are a lot of policy issues that impact the lives of a majority of black people, which include but are not limited to poverty, affirmative action and pay-day loan scams.

Pause…breath in and then exhale…continue.

All people running for office…any office…should be expected to build a platform that addresses the needs of the people they wish to serve.

Black candidates…being human (gasp!) and therefore people (shock and awe!!)…should be held to that same standard.

That isn’t acting white…speeches about the shit are not examples of talking white…and this bitch is going to move past anger into some serious rage if one more motherfucker insults me and mine through the assertion that only white people discuss the economy, healthcare, the war and international diplomacy.

Amen. But whilst ‘acting white’ meme isn’t going to do much damage to Obama (I hear he’s done alright for himself), it does a real disservice to African Americans. In his famed 2004 speech, Obama himself stated the need to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white”, and some research suggests that the ‘acting white’ stigma of educational success even stunts black Americans’ achievement in school.

This is what I find so infuriating about the shallow put-downs of Nader & co: It’s one thing to dismiss a politician, but did he have to reach for the same language that’s used to tramp down the aspirations of African American children? There are kids in The Bronx, in Baltimore and Compton whose life chances have been kneecapped before they even learn to read; are we really going to saddle the rest with the soft bigotry of low expectations?

Whether it was intentional or not, Nader, Pilger and anyone else who feels so pre-emptively betrayed by an Obama presidency that they resort to such language are inadvertently helping to perpetuate a pernicious and destructive discourse which prescribes African Americans with abilities, attitudes and aspirations that are supposedly ‘different’ to white people. Whilst this meme isn’t always an expression of racism, it is almost always a form of racialism.

I’ll end by noting that we simply have to get better at talking about race, ethnicity & identity. We need all the words we can muster – more than there are in this post & more than there are on this blog – but lazy metaphors, clumsy put-downs and the tired assumptions of old men are not going to be of much use.

Image by Flickr user wonderfully.me (Creative Commons)

Update: Okay, I’m done with this issue now, and I won’t trouble you with it again. Hopefully.

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  1. […] has been adopting tones of outraged condemnation regarding the Nader/Pilger-style rubbish. Neil has linked to a blog I’d not come across before, but which confirms for me utterly just how […]


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