A look at some American slurs
Writing for the website of CBS Sports, Mike Freeman blasted the nickname of the Washington, D.C., football team: the Redskins. He also blasted those who support or tolerate the name. He had a particular blast for one group of people. “Sure, there will be some Uncle Tom American Indians who will say ‘Redskins’ honors them,” he wrote, “just like there were some Uncle Tom blacks who once didn’t mind being called ‘colored.’”
As a rule, we bow to the opinions of people belonging to minority groups, except when their opinions conflict with our own. I think of a case in a town I’m familiar with, Ypsilanti, Mich. There, the Eastern Michigan University teams were called the Hurons, after an Indian people. (There is also a Huron River, a Huron High School, etc.) Most of the real-live Hurons who could be found supported the nickname. But that was the “wrong” opinion, so the nickname had to go, and EMU became the Eagles.
Freeman’s slur of choice was “Uncle Tom Indians,” but there is a better slur, one he may not know: “Uncle Tomahawk.” It was used by such militants as Russell Means and AIM (the American Indian Movement) — the kind of people who took over and trashed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972. You still hear it today, mainly in Indian country. A guy who may want to leave the rez, immerse himself in the broader world, and get on with life could be called an “Uncle Tomahawk.”
The term, obviously, derives from “Uncle Tom,” one of the nastiest names in the whole, horrible American lexicon. Any conservative black is liable to be tagged with it. As luck would have it, two of the most prominent black conservatives have “Thomas” in their names: Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice, and Thomas Sowell, the writer. Some who hate them can’t resist. An especially nasty instance occurred in 1996, when a magazine called “Emerge” had a disgusting caricature of Justice Thomas on its cover, with the words “Uncle Thomas: Lawn Jockey for the Far Right.”
Now and again, someone will protest that “Uncle Tom” ought not to be a put-down, because the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s momentous novel of 1852 is noble. Fans of The Jeffersons, that clever and racially interesting sitcom, may remember an episode in which Louise’s uncle Ward comes to visit. Ward works as a butler, and George couldn’t be ruder to him. He calls him “Uncle Tom,” to his face. Finally, Ward sits him down and gives him a lecture on Josiah Henson, sometimes thought to be the “real Uncle Tom.” Ward’s climactic lines are, “He was a brave man, a great leader. And I’ll tell you something else, George: I’d never call you an ‘Uncle Tom.’” The audience whoops.
Well, too late: Just as “decimate” can never mean one in ten, and “awful” can never mean “inspiring awe,” “Uncle Tom” can never mean anything but a self-denigrating, toadying black.
Do you remember “Aunt Tom”? It was a term used by feminists to denote a woman who was reluctant or unwilling to go along with their program. Betty Friedan liked to use this term. In a debate with Phyllis Schlafly, her conservative nemesis, she said, “I’d like to burn you at the stake!” (Friedan can at least be credited with candor.) “I consider you a traitor to your sex. I consider you an Aunt Tom.” There was an echo of this attitude in 2008, when Sarah Palin was the GOP vice-presidential nominee. A bumper sticker appeared that said, “She’s not a woman, she’s a Republican.”
People use “Aunt Tom” in a racial way too — as the feminine (to be distinguished from “feminist”) equivalent of “Uncle Tom.” When Mia Love, the Utah Republican, spoke at the GOP convention last year, the Internet was stinking with such terms as “house nigger,” “pickaninny,” and, yes, “Aunt Tom.”
Here is another slur that Mike Freeman and CBS Sports may like to add to their repertoires: “apple.” An Indian you disapprove of — who’s not “Indian” enough for you — is an apple. Red on the outside, white on the inside. Get it? They’ll also want to know, and use, “coconut.” That’s the slur for a Hispanic deemed “brown on the outside, white on the inside.” Linda Chavez, the conservative writer, has faced violence in her life: a dead cat left on her doorstep; a knife flicked in her face; death threats over the phone. She has also had coconuts thrown at her. In Canada — and, to a degree, in the United States — people of South Asian origin are sometimes called “coconuts.” Their sin is to integrate themselves into North American culture, or simply think for themselves.
Then you have “bananas” — the slur for people of East Asian origin who are deemed . . . well, you know. In Hong Kong, those who favored continued British rule, rather than rule by Beijing, were called “bananas.” Here in America, the more “ethnically conscious” Asians deride and bully the more assimilated as “bananas.” Those who are half Asian, half white have been known to question whether they are “bananas” or “eggs” (white on the outside . . .). Any chance they could be just people, or themselves?
There is one fruit that is neither racial nor ethnic but political and ideological: “watermelons.” These are certain environmentalists who are “green on the outside, red on the inside.” In my view, a political term of this type is far different from the racial and ethnic terms — far more benign. I also believe “RINO” is different from “LINO.” More about those terms in just a second.
One of the more galling things about the racial-and-ethnic-slur business is this: Not just your own, but people outside your race or ethnicity may tar you as insufficiently loyal to your group. A few years ago, I asked Tom Sowell, “Who has treated you worse in your life? Other black people or white liberals?” He shook his head, chuckled, and said, “It’s too close to call.”
Which brings me to Aswini Anburajan, who recently called Ted Cruz a LINO. “LINO” is a takeoff from “RINO,” which means “Republican in Name Only.” “LINO” means “Latino in Name Only.” Anburajan is a journalist who works for BuzzFeed and WNYC (the National Public Radio outlet in New York City). Cruz, as you know, is the new Republican senator from Texas. According to Señorita Anburajan, or so it seems, you have to be a left-winger in the mold of La Raza or MALDEF to qualify as a Latino. (I have named two prominent pressure groups.) Cruz is half Cuban, true. His father was a refugee. The senator makes no bones about this. In fact, he emphasizes it, when the occasion warrants. But he is also a conservative, and as American as apple pie — or as Texan as a steak. And this, the racialists can’t stand.
Speaking of Cuban Americans, you may remember an affirmative-action case of a decade ago, Grutter v. Bollinger. It concerned the University of Michigan Law School. On that campus, the question arose, “Who qualifies as a Hispanic?” One professor said that Cuban Americans should be counted out, because they vote Republican.
To my knowledge, Wanda Sykes, the comedian, has cracked one good joke in her life. It was at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, in Obama’s presence. “The first black president — proud to be able to say that,” she began. “That’s unless you screw up. And then it’s going to be, ‘What’s up with the half-white guy, huh? Who voted for the mulatto, what the hell?’” The Obama presidency has revealed much racial strangeness in America — and revealed it redundantly, to be sure. Take merely the matter of golf.
Last summer, Bill Maher, another comedian, said that Obama was “too white” for some “progressives.” For example, “he plays golf.” A week and a half later, Lawrence O’Donnell, an MSNBC host, said that it was white racism to mention Obama’s affinity for golf. Why? Because that is to associate the president with “the lifestyle of Tiger Woods.” (O’Donnell was not alluding to a record-setting golf career, but to adultery.) A cigar may be a cigar, and golf may be golf — but not to the hard-bitten racialist.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones / But words will never hurt me.” The problem with this pleasant ditty is that it isn’t necessarily true. Words may hurt as much as sticks and stones, or more. It’s hard enough to navigate through life without racial and ethnic pressure and condemnation. Without having to be “black” enough, “Hispanic” enough, or whatever. Furthermore, it’s possible to make arguments without name-calling. When it comes to the Washington Redskins, I think I agree with Mike Freeman of CBS: The label, and logo, should probably go. (I believe “Redskins,” as a name, is different in character from “Hurons,” “Seminoles,” and the like.) But when he says “Uncle Tom Indians,” I want to stand up and sing the fight song, “Hail to the Redskins.”
There is a name in America that covers a multitude of people — people of all types, biologically and mentally: “American.” When Linda Chavez was a schoolgirl, a teacher asked her, “What nationality are you?” Later, Linda told her mother about this. Her mother said, “I hope you said ‘American.’” Linda, being Linda, had.
In 1997, Ward Connerly, the president of the American Civil Rights Institute, was interviewed by a New York Times reporter over the phone. The reporter said, “What are you?” Connerly said, “I am an American.” The reporter said, “No, no, no! What are you?” Connerly said, “Yes, yes, yes! I am an American.” The reporter continued, “That is not what I mean. I was told that you are African American. Are you ashamed to be African American?” “No,” said Connerly, “I’m just proud to be an American.”
Then there was the moment at the end of last year’s presidential campaign, when Vice President Joe Biden said to a man in Sarasota, “Are you Indian?” The man responded, “American!” Oddly enough, that word can sound gloriously subversive.