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Why is it all right to call someone 'Uncle Tom' ?

TROUBLES: A poster for Uncle Tom’s Cabin

EVERY UNCLE Tom, Dick and Harry knows that you can't use the ‘N word’ in public.

In certain circumstances it is against the law to use the ‘N word’, and for many years it has been proscribed in the national media. However, it is okay to call someone an ‘Uncle Tom’, because that's really a conversation between black people.

So it is okay for us to abuse each other with pernicious and offensive language, as long as it is between us. Hence why some folks see no problem with rappers calling each other ‘ni**er', as long as Eminem doesn't do it. When it comes to ‘Uncle Tom' that's a free for all.

Case in point is Blackburn Rovers striker Jason Roberts, who was the guest pundit on BBC Five Live's 606 phone-in on bonfire night. The conversation was all about whether Chelsea's John Terry should be stripped of the England captaincy if it is found that he used a racial slur against Queen’s Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand.

Punishment
Jason Roberts set out his stall: that Terry should have the full force of punishment upon him if the Football Association’s investigation proves that he did use a racial slur.

Roberts insisted that it was only fair and proper to wait until the outcome of those investigations (he gave the ‘we live in a democracy’, ‘you're innocent until proven guilty’ arguments). Moments later a caller cussed him for "sitting on the fence" and accused him of being an ‘Uncle Tom’.

Jason Roberts was furious. He was livid. He was incandescent with rage. The main presenter was nonplussed. He didn't have a clue why Roberts was fuming. It was only after a break for the news and sports bulletins that the presenter admitted on air that he had only just been told what the phrase means.

An interesting scenario. Given that Jason Roberts was the object of the insult, you can safely assume that he is black. Given that the presenter had never heard the phrase before, it is safe to assume that he is not black. But what about the caller, was he white or black? Does it matter?

What difference does it make if it was a white person or a black person calling him ‘Uncle Tom'? What difference does it make if it is a white person or a black person using the ‘N word’? The only difference is it is okay for anyone, anywhere, to use ‘Uncle Tom' – a far more insidious invective than the ‘N word’, in my opinion.

You have to feel sorry for Uncle Tom. Not just because I have been laughingly accused of being like him. He is, of course, the kindly elderly ‘negro' of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. I don't know a single black person who would read the book today if you paid them. The last time I put it in front of a visitor round my place, she nearly flung it back in my face. The annotated version on my shelf includes illustrations of the day that would now be considered racist.

I feel sorry for Uncle Tom because he has become the most reviled character in American literary history. He is umbilically tied to the stereotype of the black man all too eager to please the white man – the embodiment of race betrayal, according to scholar Henry Louis Gates.

Yet on closer examination by any reader, Uncle Tom simmers with the quiet dignity and wisdom of a shackled African who has cooked in sorrow's kitchen and licked out all its pots. Your blues ain't like his. The truth is nobody knows the troubles Uncle Tom has seen.

The late legendary boxer Joe Frazier never got over the insult of being called an ‘Uncle Tom’ by Muhammad Ali ahead of their Thriller in Manila fight in 1975. In my view, that was the only foot Ali put wrong in his career. I am sure he regrets it today. But Joe Frazier never forgot it.

Joe Frazier and I are in good company. Other prominent black people who have been labelled ‘Uncle Tom' include Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.

Call me what you like, but then take a good look in the mirror before you accuse white people of dividing and ruling us. Why would they bother when you're doing a good job yourself?

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