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Maya Rupert Headshot

The Problem With Uncle Tom

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The backlash from Barney Frank's recent comment comparing the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay and lesbian Republicans, to "Uncle Toms" at the Democratic National Convention prompted him to take to The Huffington Post to publish an explanation of his decision to use that term. It began with an admission that he was "not surprised that members of the Log Cabin Republicans [were] offended" by the comparison.

The problem is Log Cabin Republicans aren't the only ones Frank offended with this insensitive comparison. "Uncle Tom" is a racially loaded slavery reference, and his decision to use it here was entirely inappropriate.

"Uncle Tom" is a pejorative epithet derived from the lead character in abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Uncle Tom was a slave whose innate goodness and genuine kindness, despite being subjected to the brutalities of slavery, made him a sympathetic figure for many white audiences who had never before identified with a black character. This portrayal is credited with having humanized black slaves to many white readers and helped to foment emerging anti-slavery sentiment.

Interestingly, Uncle Tom as a character bore little resemblance to the traitorous caricature invoked by the insult. In fact, in the book he was ultimately killed when he refused to betray two runaway slave women and reveal to slave owners where they were. Uncle Tom was a martyr, but he was no sycophant.

Over the years this complexity has become obscured, and "Uncle Tom" has simply become synonymous with a person so afflicted by self-loathing-turned-cultural-Stockholm-syndrome that they are willing to acquiesce to their own subordination in order to appease their oppressors.

In his defense of his use of the term, Frank doubled down on the comparison and referred to the Republican politicians that the Log Cabin Republicans support as "masters using a kinder tone." Frank is not the first person to make such a comparison. Dan Savage recently made headlines for calling the gay conservative group GOProud "house fa***ts" for endorsing Mitt Romney. The epithet was a reference to the term "house slave," which refers to slaves who worked in the house as opposed to the field and are sometimes curiously thought to have been treated better by slave owners (despite the fact that working in the house carried its own risks, like sexual assault and rape).

Frank's use of Uncle Tom to describe the Log Cabin Republicans prompted a discussion about, as he put it, whether he was "ignoring the fact that they are nice." Savage's comments prompted a discussion about whether a gay man should use the term "fa***ts" to disparage other gay people. But there is a larger discussion that should be prompted by these comments about the fact that the experience of slaves and the experience of gay and lesbian people in this country are not comparable. It's not comparing apples and oranges. It's comparing apples and slavery.

Invoking slavery to make a comparison is almost always inappropriate. Precious few things come close to matching the horrors and indignities of the practice of slavery and the experience of slaves in this country. Republicans, and the gay people who vote for them, are nowhere on this list.

We need to let go of the myth of "Uncle Tom," not only because of the inherent inappropriateness of the comparison but because it is not a useful way of understanding any form of systemic oppression or the subsequent reaction to it. The broader problem with the accusation that a member of a group that has been oppressed or disenfranchised in some way betrays their identity when they act outside one prescribed way is that it imagines a narrow conception of that identity.

The idea of "Uncle Tom" is based on a flawed assumption that there is only one way to respond to oppression, which assumes that there is some single shared experience of all members of a marginalized community. It denies the complexity of the experience of being a member of an underrepresented community and reduces it to a monolithic experience. It is reductive and perpetuates bias against those in the community. It's ironic that "Uncle Tom" refers to a person willing to participate in their own oppression, because the use of the term itself does just that.