August 3, 2020

I don’t think calling me ‘Uncle Tom’ means what you think it does?

Last week, spurred by a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, I wrote about the unproductive narrative developing among traditional education boosters who are stoking fear about the supposed evil conspiracies behind online learning, ed-tech, and nontraditional education. COVID-19 is forcing on millions families, students, and educators to adapt quickly to a “new normal,” and it seems to me the usual debates about school reform are entirely bootless now.

Perhaps my arrow shot at those I see as public-schools-or-bust “cultists” inspired a retort from a retired teacher in California wrote a piece that placed me, my colleagues, and our network of parents and educators into an elaborate billionaire conspiracy to ruin an faultless public education system, staffed with indisputably virtuous and effective teachers and stocked with excellent pedagogical capacities, that works equally well for everyone regardless of class, race, or history.

The teacher, Tom Ultican, shared his post through Twitter and tagged members of Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education who breathlessly crowed over his shoddy work. To make it saucy he added this: “Uncle Tom Stewart spews neoliberal billionaire ideology and hate for public schools at Bloomberg’s Project Propaganda.”

None of the tagged co-signers said anything about the fact that Ultican, a white male who is presumably educated enough to teaching high school students, should have attended enough cultural competence trainings in his career to understand using the Uncle Tom slur against any black person is morally subterranean.

It’s weird that these are the people we must battle to gain the freedom to learn for our kids. TheUtlican’s, Ravitch’s, and their racially redundant network of age-similar and privileged peddlers of an overly precious nostalgia about their public schools. As people demanding reform, change, and choice, we threaten their beloved system, and that pushes them to lazily bypass the dignity of reasoned exchange, and, instead, slide into the expediency of stereotyping.

When we disagree with their old-school labor theology they marginalize, discount, and attempt to cancel us. They pull our 990’s, misread them, and attack our funders, our salaries, and our contracts. They ask to speak to the manager and try to get us fired (Karen is alive and well in education and her phone is already on 5G). They bird-dog superintendents, harass school board members, and attack even the most gentle reform-positive participants in Facebook groups.

And, the only people of color they celebrate are those who read all the red letters in the teachers’ union hymnal. For those of us claiming the promise public education is a check that keeps returning to us for “insufficient funds,” Ravitchins reserve their most backward tropes that include the greedy pimp, the shameless sellout, the uppity negro, the coonish minstrel, or an illicit combination of all those anti-black figments of the white imagination.

I’d prefer they just call us niggers and move on.

When Ultican calls me an “Uncle Tom” I forgive him for making my African ancestry an issue in his disagreement. I can’t forgive him as an educator for attempting to use Uncle Tom as a slur when in fact he means Sambo, the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin who beat Tom to death when his “master” demanded he do so.

In a comment on Ravitch’s blog he responded to exposing his racism with this:

I am sorry to have hurt your feelings but I don’t see how labeling you an Uncle Tom is racist. Uncle Tom is the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He is seen variously as a ground-breaking humanistic African-American slave, one who uses non-resistance and gives his life to protect others who have escaped from slavery and as being inappropriately subservient to white slaveholders. This is how Uncle Tom became a derogatory epithet for an exceedingly subservient person, particularly one aware of their own lower-class status based on race.

This incoherent and ahistorical rebuttal is supposed to spare him. It doesn’t. It alarms the part of me that wants teachers before my kids who posses a stronger command of history and its classic texts. In my view, true educators should be better than this. They should continuously educate through their engagement in and out of classrooms. Their publicly shared “analysis” should make people smarter, more informed, better able to critically consider the life they live and to grow intellectually.

Are we to believe that when Ultican called me “Uncle Tom Stewart” and claimed that I’m working for the white masters, he really meant to call me a “ground-breaking humanistic African-American slave” – like that’s somehow better? Should we assume he meant to compare me to Rev. Josiah Henson, the pious and principled real life individual who inspired Stowe’s character Tom and the noble character in her story who preferred to lose his life at the end of a slaver’s whip rather than turn in two enslaved black women, who had escaped from the plantation, as Stowe’s story says?

If so, fine. The real Uncle Tom would have probably agreed with me when I say our families should decide when, where, and how our children learn (and this includes families using public funding to educate their children).

He would probably agree that historically marginalized people have a longstanding special interest in self-determining what constitutes an education for our children, and we have every right to seek alternatives to the public schools that have harmed them over generations. Any proposal that limits families to inferior educational opportunities or blocks marginalized families from nontraditional schools is a nonstarter for me.

History’s real Uncle Tom, said this about his life’s purpose: “One absorbing purpose occupied my soul – to gain freedom, self-assertion, and deliverance from the cruel caprices and fortunes of dissolute tyrants.”

I’ll abide by that wonderful and inspiring mission regardless of how many night-riding overseers and Sambos the public education plantation send to collect me.

We can disagree on the best way for black families to educate their children. What you’re not going to do is discount my advocacy with racial slurs.

7 thoughts on “I don’t think calling me ‘Uncle Tom’ means what you think it does?

  1. Your quote from me was inaccurate. Purposeful? Here is the quote, “I am sorry to have hurt your feelings but I don’t see how labeling you an Uncle Tom is racist. Uncle Tom is the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He is seen variously as a ground-breaking humanistic African-American slave, one who uses non-resistance and gives his life to protect others who have escaped from slavery and as being inappropriately subservient to white slaveholders. This is how Uncle Tom became a derogatory epithet for an exceedingly subservient person, particularly one aware of their own lower-class status based on race.” I shouldn’t have used such a hateful epithet but it was not any more racist than calling someone a Quisling.

    1. A few things:

      1. I cut and pasted your quote as-is. BTW – someone pointed out to me that your description was taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If so, a citation is appropriate.

      2. When you do something racist you should reflect and learn from it rather than double-down and deflect.

      3. I have no idea what a “Quisling” is.

    2. Doubling down and then WhiteManSplaining on that racist language? Disgusting.

      And where exactly is the quote inaccuracy? Looks verbatim to me.

      1. I mean, if you can’t convince a public school teacher that calling black people “Uncle Tom” isn’t appropriate, what hope is there for public education?

    3. I generally avoid the comments section of blogs and articles because it tends to devolve into nonsensical polarization where logic has no place. But the one thing that will raise my attention and move me to weigh in is when racism rears its ugly and ignorant head and then I feel called to respond. Now, I don’t know you, but I went and read your bio because I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t just plain ignorance from lack of awareness, such as if you’d been in a coma for twenty years and missed all of the dialogue around white fragility, white privilege and the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, all of which would explain the failure to understand one of the basic tenets of racism and relations, that Uncle Tom is a racial slur no matter what context you place it in. Which means that either you’re a blatant racist who is refuting this because of your nature, you honestly don’t understand racism and its forms and impact or you’re “Sea lioning”.

      Now, not knowing you, it wouldn’t be fair to call you a racist even though your actions are, but I would need more examples to attribute that label to you. So let’s put that aside. Now if you honestly don’t understand racism and its forms, then you really have no place in an education debate or discussion because you are not educated. If you’re unable to have paid attention to the world and the reviled nature of this term then you should NEVER be in a position of teaching anyone. because that will actually do more harm than the actual slur, but since you attempted to dismiss it academically, you do have some knowledge, so I think we can rule that out. Which means you’re Sea lioning, which is really one of the most offensive forms of trolling and the fact that you would do it around so serious an issue calls into question any position or platform you might have in an education debate.

      But since Sea lioning always calls for “evidence” with pretend civility, allow me to enlighten you to the two largest factors you missed in your academic denial: 1. you do not understand the depth of what this racial slur means; and 2. you cannot compare racism and racial slurs to something so mundane as a term for traitor because it does not have the 400 years of oppression, degradation and violence that racial slurs have. To put it simply, it’s like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it.

      What you fail to grasp in your Wikipedia explanation of what being an Uncle Tom means is that the story and the interpretation you offer are written through a White lens to allow White people to be able to comprehend and feel at ease when talking about a subject that creates such…fragility. When the correct lens is applied, the true nature of the slur is revealed; that it is more than merely a “derogatory epithet for an exceedingly subservient person” but it is a reflection of the limited understanding through which African Americans were viewed. The simplicity of the character is bound in the limitations of the perception of the White author and White audience. When you call someone an Uncle Tom, you are not merely referring to subservience as a character trait, you are relegating them to the two-dimensional nature of the image of African Americans, you are calling that person a limited caricature of a human being as we were viewed in the time (still are in some circles). More to the point, you are validating the entire racist view of African American through the Slavery and Jim Crow stereotypes. You are, in effect, justifying racism.

      So, before you so cavalierly attribute a racial slur to an opponent in a debate because you think that the snarky insult will endear you to whatever base you are trying to appeal to, do a little research (I’d recommend James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” for this one) so that you actually know what you’re talking about and don’t end up embarrassing yourself as you’ve done here.

    4. I take claims of racism on a case-by-case basis and I believe the term is overused these days. But since it’s obvious you wouldn’t have used “Uncle Tom” to describe Mr. Stewart if he wasn’t black, then it’s equally obvious that it was racist to do so.

      The only way to make a mistake like that worse is to lack the intellectual honesty, courage, and dignity to recognize the mistake and apologize for it.

      How we respond to the mistakes we inevitably make in life says so much more about us than those mistakes do.

  2. Don’t care how you explain it, “Uncle Tom” is a demeaning, racist slur. Any African-American will agree. End of discussion, apology should follow.

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