Uncle Ben Carson as Uncle Tom?

Version B is the ambitious black person who subordinates himself in order to achieve a more favorable status within the dominant society.

UncleBenThe Okie asks:

Some folks are saying this (picture) is racist. I think it’s perversely genius. It takes a still existing trademark with a very questionable past (Uncle Ben is now Chairman of the Board, it seems) and uses it for political satire. I went looking around the net for more information and found this article which I found interesting. Roger Green, I’d be interested in your take on it.

I read the comment on one string. Some felt it was a fine parody, appropriate about Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, someone who has said such outlandish things as that Jews having guns could have mitigated or even prevented the Holocaust. He’s not only been shown to be ignorant of history but, surprisingly for a neurosurgeon, profoundly wrongheaded about science.

Others felt the intent is irrelevant.”Stereotypes like ‘Uncle Ben’ and ‘Aunt Jemima’ are offensive to many African Americans in much the same way the pejorative ‘Uncle Tom’ is. They are used to perpetuate the myth of happy, subservient black people. that it is still being used to sell food products is as bad as a football team being called ‘Redskins’. And one added if it would have been OK if Barack and Michelle Obama had been so characterized.

This is a tricky nut to crack. I’m less concerned about evoking Uncle Ben as I am about the implicit suggestion of Uncle Tom. Though, as you’ll see, they are related.

I wrote about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the term Uncle Tom quite a while back, so I thought I’d take a look at the article the Okie mentioned, located on the website of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The piece made sense to me until, in its portrayal of the movie roles of Sidney Poitier, the writer declared all the roles listed to “approximate… the Tom stereotype, even though his characters were never one dimensional. Poitier did not play characters that were submissive, cheerful servants, but many of his characters were white-identified.” Notably missing was In the Heat of the Night, where Poitier returns the slap of the racist.

Next is the “Commercial Toms” section, which notes Uncle Ben’s “using the image of a smiling, elderly black man on its package.” (This begs the question what WOULD have been an appropriate black character?) “Arguably the most enduring commercial Tom is ‘Rastus,’ the Cream of Wheat Cook. While the guy on the package seems benign to me, the patois that he was stuck saying in earlier days was clearly racist: “Maybe Cream of Wheat aint got no vitamines. I dont know what them things is….” Too bad, because he always reminded me of some ancestors of my father.

The real crux of this matter is in the section “Uncle Tom as Opprobrium”:

In many African American communities “Uncle Tom” is a slur used to disparage a black person who is humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people. Derived from Stowe’s character, the modern use is a perversion of her original portrayal. The contemporary use of the slur has two variations. Version A is the black person who is a docile, loyal, religious, contented servant who accommodates himself to a lowly status. Version B is the ambitious black person who subordinates himself in order to achieve a more favorable status within the dominant society. In both instances, the person is believed to overly identify with whites, in Version A because of fear, in Version B because of opportunism. This latter use is more common today.

“Uncle Tom,” unlike most anti-black slurs, is primarily used by blacks against blacks. Its synonyms include “oreo,” “sell-out,” “uncle,” “race-traitor,” and “white man’s negro.” It is an in-group term used as a social control mechanism.

I have discovered that some white people also feel the need to ascertain whether a black person is “black enough.” In column A, the moderate civil rights leaders of the 1960s (King, Whitney Young, et al.) had been called Toms by those more militant. But the Version B have included Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and pretty much any black Republican.

This is an extremely long way to say, no, I don’t think the picture is specifically racist; it surely did not offend me. Mentioning race, or Uncle Tom, or Uncle Ben, is not perforce inappropriate. But there is an element of what Nelson Mandela used to refer to as racialism, a conversation that has race as a core element.

That convenient trope that all black conservatives aren’t “REALLY black” I find frustrating. Their philosophy certainly doesn’t represent MY POV at all, but to drum them out of the ethnic grouping as “inauthentic” by those who act “blacker than thou” really bugs me. Even when it applies to Ben Carson, who, if I were inclined, I might mock as foolish or crazy, but not as an Uncle Tom, which, I believe, the drawing is, at least partially, designed to do. Perhaps he was targeted as a result of his total lack of understanding of Black Lives Matter.

Still, I found the graphic mildly clever. The Wife grimaced when she saw it, but the tween daughter, who’s pretty political savvy for her age, found it hilarious.

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