Ben Carson: Examining The "Uncle Tom" Label
Cover of Book "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
The Cast of Uncle Tom’s shadow
When I was a child, Clarence Thomas was under fire during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings because of the sexual harassment claims made by Anita Hill. I wasn’t old enough to understand what any of this really meant, but what I did know, is that all of the black adults in my family said he was an “Uncle Tom”. I knew that an “Uncle Tom” was a black man who had no reverence for his own heritage and only sought to achieve the acceptance and appeasement of white people. He was the worst thing a black person could be. I accepted that this was the case because that’s what all of the adults were saying. As an adult I have reexamined many ideas I took as gospel in my childhood. Having done some research on Clarence Thomas, I have found that for the most part Clarence Thomas was labeled an “Uncle Tom” because he is a Republican, a conservative one, and he is against affirmative action. The fact that he was one of the earliest members of the Black Student Union and is notable for his work as the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was irrelevant. He had gained position as a black man in the world and did not do enough to challenge “white privilege”. That really is it in a nutshell. If you are a black person and do not challenge “white privilege” to a certain degree, you are a sellout. This is something that has taken maturity and wisdom in myself to challenge. As a child hearing that Clarence Thomas was an “Uncle Tom” meant that none of his accomplishments meant anything if he wasn’t going to publicly admit that racism was a problem in America. The problem is less about what I was told and more about what I wasn’t. I wasn’t told that I was looking at a black man who was born into dire poverty. I wasn’t told he could barely speak proper English as a child due to the lack of educational standards in his community. I wasn’t told that despite his impoverished childhood he graduated Cum Laude from College and earned a Law degree from Yale. His perseverance, and the respect that he earned in his field was never discussed. It was all irrelevant because he was an “Uncle Tom”.
Separating Achievements and Agreements
Ben Carson is one of the most prominent physicians this country has ever seen. He has a Psychology degree from Yale and a medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School. He has made history with his accomplishments as a neurosurgeon. While most physicians choose one specialty, he has managed to specialize in oncology, pediatrics, and plastic surgery. The respectability he has gained in his career is above reproach. He has managed to avoid the types of scandals that have become commonplace with many successful people. He is still married to his college sweetheart and as far as I know, he hasn’t conducted himself in anyway publicly that is not worthy of respect. Yet, when many black people discuss him, he is referred to as an “Uncle Tom”. This label overshadows all else. The young minds that we are forming absorb this message whether we realize it or not. We are essentially telling our youth, “Gaining preeminent respect in your career is worthless if you agree with white people too often”. We must be able to separate a disagreement on where one stands politically and whether someone is worthy of being a role model. We should be able to tell our children, ”No, I don’t agree with his political position on this, but he is worthy of respect for these reasons”. While addressing inequality in this country is still important, we can’t allow that to be the only thing that matters.
Resisting All or Nothing
When Sarah Palin became a household name I, like most of the people I know, did not believe she was an appropriate choice for Vice President. She was polarizing and the butt of many jokes, and I personally do not agree with most of her political views. What was interesting about the Sarah Palin phenomenon, is that characterizations of her were so exaggerated. Either she was the Devil or she was a Saint yet, something about her always stood out to me. She had become the governor of Alaska and became pregnant during her tenure at 43 years old. She knew her child had Down Syndrome before it was born. She could have quietly and discreetly, gotten an abortion. Most women in her position would have, but she did not. I thought to myself, regardless of our differences in political views, I respect her integrity. She has claimed to be pro-life and clearly this is not just a political talking point for her. Having the courage of your convictions, means you have to abide by them even when it is inconvenient. You must stick by them even when they cost you. That has unfortunately become a rare thing, particularly in the political arena. I don’t have to vote for Sarah Palin to recognize that she is worthy of some respect. Being objective and showing respect to those you do not agree with is an important lesson to bestow upon our young people.
Examining Our Standards
When we call Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson “Uncle Toms”, we are essentially saying that acquiring a degree from Yale is worthy of respect only if you agree with our political ideology. When we decide to admonish Ben Carson yet hold Al Sharpton as a role model, we need to examine ourselves. It isn’t necessary to take an all or nothing approach to any black person that becomes politically active. It isn’t necessary to decide that if someone is not on our “team” we must destroy any semblance of respectability they have achieved. This doesn’t just apply to the “Uncle Tom” label. This applies to more than just politics. Think of the violence that has erupted in every part of the world based on nothing more than intolerance for different belief systems. We are generally too quick to pass judgement on each other based on whether or not someone agrees with us. We need to evolve past this all or nothing approach and hold ourselves to a higher standard of decorum when facing differences of opinion.