Christian Living

Death to the Uncle Tom for Christians

Trillia Newbell

Growing up in a predominantly white city and attending predominantly white schools meant that much of my cultural influence, besides my immediate family, was white. When I speak, I have heard that I “sound white.” That is what I was told growing up and though I don’t hear that now, I imagine that to others I still “sound white.”

Unfortunately, I was also called names like “Uncle Tom” or “White girl” from my Black peers. That was quite confusing growing up because I was in fact very passionately Black. My father had taught me well about the African American experience in the United States and I had experienced blatant racism being in the south so to be rejected by some of my peers was most disconcerting for a young girl.

As I got older, I hoped that the term “Uncle Tom” or at the very least the animosity and black-on-black prejudice I experienced, would have gone away.  But I distinctly remember in college being called an “Uncle Tom.” This time I was older and quick tongued and wasn’t going to take it lying down. The young man mocked me after I refused an advance.  I imagine that his pride was simply hurt. But it hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t a Christian at the time so my response was probably less than gracious. I basically turned and said, “Are you serious?” And then went on to explain that our age should move us past the foolishness of name calling.

Now, slightly older and redeemed by the blood of Christ, my thoughts have changed, but only slightly. It isn’t our age that should motivate us to kill the term “Uncle Tom.” Rather our mutual love for one another and for other image bearers should motivate us to move past this term.  Our love for God should move us past this term.

Why Address This Now?

Facebook, though semi-private, is actually quite public. As I was perusing the site one day I saw a post that challenged an article recently published. I don’t remember all of the details and honestly, they don’t matter. But what I do remember is a comment that read something like, “He’s just an Uncle Tom.” I don’t know the person who said it and they do not know me. Again, it matters not who said it, just that the term is still being used and if I was trekking correctly this person would claim to be a Christian.

This is an appeal for Black Christians to stop calling each other “Uncle Tom’s.”

The term has a deep history, derived from the character of the same name in Harrett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The Christian character, Uncle Tom, was depicted as subservient to his white master.  To be called an Uncle Tom today is the equivalent of being called a “sell out.”

Look at these definitions of an Uncle Tom given by Urban Dictionary:

  1. “Uncle Tom is a term used by black people to try to convince other black people that working, education, living well, and setting a good example for their children is selling out.”
  2. “African American male who kisses the white mans (butt).”
  3. “Productive African-American member of society.”

Contrast this with what the word of God says about these same individuals:

  1. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  2. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:16-19).
  3. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2: 15)

What a contrast! God’s word is living and active and useful for us as we pursue righteousness and love. But if that’s not motivation enough maybe James can help us.

Tame the Untamable 

Our tongues can be used for all sorts of vile things. James exclaims,How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6).  Our speech can tear down, destroy, cause pain and suffering. Our tongues are powerful and yet such a small portion of our created body. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, James explains that the tongue is untamable (3:7).

What I believe grieves James, and the Holy Spirit, is that we so often praise God in one breath and curse our brother in the next (3: 10). He gives three examples to highlight the atrocity of cursing and what it does to the soul including describing the impossibility of a fig tree bearing olives (3: 12). But James graciously (yes, a rebuke can be a gracious act) reminds us that we can actually draw upon God’s grace for self-control.  How do we do this? We speak and act as those who will be judge (3:12-13). We are to act mercifully towards other because “mercy trumps over judgment!”

Let’s be a generation marked by gracious speech towards one another. This action motivated by a desire to love and obey our Savior and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know this is only possible because Jesus died for every tongue that ever shouted “Uncle Tom” to their black brother or sister. 

9 thoughts on “Death to the Uncle Tom for Christians

  1. RLynn

    Great article. I was called Uncle Tom and went to school up north…not just a southern thing.

  2. Ellen Michelle

    Thank you for writing and sharing your burden and your heart on this issue! I love how you call out the sin for what it is, and also spur us on toward gracious speech, with a reminder that Christ died for those people as much as us.
    In the verse you quoted at the end (which was so powerful), I wondered if you meant “triumphs,” not “trumps?” 🙂


    I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Uncle Tom really wasn’t an “Uncle Tom.”

  4. Meredith Beck

    Thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Trillia

    Yes! Christian or not, the words should be eliminated. I do hope that those who are Christians would take it quite seriously. It’s really a matter of the heart. God can and does change hearts!

  6. Trillia

    So true, thanks for commenting and for your kind words!

  7. Dennis Louis

    The subject matter of this post is both timely and much needed. The issue of name calling aside, the mindset that you are “acting white” if you use proper grammar as well as proper enunciation of words, is completely destructive and unhelpful.

    Now more than ever we see minorities having access to education and advance training; a natural bi-product of this is a certain decorum of practice, attitude, and speech that reflects the experiences that one is exposed to through those mediums.

    I think that we all have the freedom as God has given grace to such an one, to act in any way that we deem appropriate for our context. Thank you for handling this situation with the grace, precision, and carefulness that it deserves.

  8. Trillia

    Thanks, Tim!

  9. Tim

    Well, Done, Trillia. No matter how tempting it might be to toss off a couple epithets, tearing down people by name-calling is never going to do anyone any good.


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