Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Uppity Is Bad

We had a huge Sunday dinner with a lot of extended family for Father’s Day. I was talking with a family member, let’s call him Spock, about the new A-Team movie, since he’d just gone to see it. Someone around the table brought up Mr. T’s absence from the remake and asked why he’d not been cast. Spock said, “Oh, he just got uppity."

My eyes widened at his flip remark, tossed onto the table with little more than a shrug. I said, “Excuse me?”
“He was too uppity for a part.”
“I can’t believe you just said that about an African American man.”
“What?” he shrugged again.
“That’s bad, Spock, really bad.”
“I’m not P.C.”
“It’s not about being P.C., it’s about using that kind of language when describing a black person.”

I knew Spock wasn’t intentionally outing himself as a racist, he honestly didn’t think he’d said anything wrong. However, Spock used a word, “uppity”, that has a long and violent history attached to it. Any American who values their liberty should understand what happened during Post-Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow laws; when liberty was capriciously applied, oppression was normal, and calling a person “uppity” was another expression of imbalanced power.

“Uppity” was the label given by whites to blacks that had overstepped their bounds, who had “forgotten” themselves. Whether it was defending themselves or their families, not showing deference at every possible step, not moving out of the way on a sidewalk or bus, or merely looking a white woman in the eye, the surest way to get yourself lynched was to, by some real or imagined slight, get yourself labeled “uppity.” And then the men would come in the night, take you to a tree, string you up, and desecrate your corpse.

I looked up a couple paragraphs for Spock to read on my phone while he was sitting next to me and asked him to read them. The sections spelled out how two or three black people were lynched every week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The photographs of their bodies, with community members, even children, posing near them, were published in newspapers, made into postcards, and mailed all over this country as souvenirs.

Yes, souvenirs.

We think around 5,000 people were lynched, although we’ll never know the true number, torn from their families for being “uppity.”

From what I understand, “uppity” has been reclaimed by some members of the African American community; its usage is complex, nuanced, and internal--tying more to class than race. I’m not qualified to talk about What It All Means.

But in my opinion, it’s not appropriate for a privileged white male to use that word to describe a black person, not even in a flip way, not even if you don’t really understand what you’re saying. Too many people died. Too many people were taken from families, and hurt. Too many 14-year-old children who visited their grand-uncles, and whistled at a white woman, were taken at 12:30 in the morning, beaten nearly to death, shot, 70 pound cotton gin fans tied onto their necks with barbed wire, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River--1,000 miles away from mothers who would never see them again. And the men who did it would be acquitted in about an hour--because if the jury "hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken us too long."

So sure, “uppity”!

It’s not bad at all!

Other interesting sources to read about the word "uppity":
1. The Obamas are called uppity by a congressman
2. Someone who is better qualified to talk about taking back "uppity"
3. The Uppity Negro Syndrome from the always great to read The Root.


Emily said...

I think I've heard this word maybe a handful of times, and probably from my grandmother. Thank you for educating me today--I had no idea the history behind the word. Truly, thank you.

The redhead said...

Please don't think less of me, please please. But I had never heard the history behind the word "uppity." Must have had a crap education or severe memory loss. Actually, I've heard the word bounced around in my Ohioan rooted family, but it was always in the context of "being uptight" and worrying too much. I didn't know it had negative connotations. But thank you for saving me from potentially really offending someone.

Azúcar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Azúcar said...

I won't think less of you, because you didn't know.

When Spock found out, he still seemed non-plussed. In fact, he wouldn't agree to stop using it. I bargained that he could use it with anyone he wanted, as long as he wasn't using it to refer to anyone who was African American. Not cool.

Jena Vincent said...


I'm going to go with the redhead on the "crap education or severe memory loss" part. While I do have a poor memory, I'm pretty sure the only times I've ever heard "uppity" was from my Mom , usually talking about other whites (just because there aren't many blacks where I live) particularly white women just being prissy and hard to deal with. I don't think I ever heard it in Junior year history class, when we covered that era in American history, but that was over a decade ago. But knowing the background now, I thinking I'll be taking that word out of my vocabulary as much as possible. Thanks for the education!

Barb @ getupandplay said...

Great post and apparently, well-needed.

ali said...

That word has always affected me-- I really hate it when people use it at all especially flippantly.

JMadd said...

Where I come from, there was no mistaking what people meant by it because it usually preceded the "N" word. I've never said it, but have heard it quite a bit from old folks.

~j. said...

While I have never considered the word 'uppity' in a derogatory sense, it's also perhaps the last word I'd use to describe, of all people, Mr. T.

Mrs. Potts said...

Wow, I had no idea that the word 'uppity' had such negative connotations. I always thought it just meant anal retentive. Obviously I'm not alone. I blame the public schools! haha. I asked my husband if he knew that, and he just stared at me with this 'like, duh' expression. So I'll certainly eliminate that word from my vocabulary.

Although I am a little curious about your use of the phrase 'privileged white male.' That phrase has always irked me, because it smacks of the whole reparations-for-past-injustices issue, which I feel, so many years later, is utter crap. Bill Cosby's Pound Cake speech (however controversial it may be) pretty much sums up my perspective on that. Feel free to educate me if I'm wrong. I'm no expert on the subject and I would love to hear a different view but that's just how I feel after a year of living in South Florida's ghetto-fabulous culture. There. I said it. I really truly promise I'm not racist! Don't stone me!

La Yen said...

Doesn't mr t have lupus or ms or something? (He also had a cereal, but that is neither here nor there.)

Azúcar said...

Mrs P -- He IS a privileged white male. He has had every advantage in life. He's never had to justify his presence on a street corner, he's never been pulled over because of where he was, or what he was driving, or how he looked. He's never had to worry about looking at a police officer in the wrong way. He's never had a neighbor call because he couldn't get the door to his own house unlocked and had an officer arrest him. I can't speak for all white males, but I'm speaking for this one: he is all of those things.

I love him, but he is.

Anonymous said...

I've heard the word used without racial connotations, and for those connotations I just left it be. And even if I was sitting at the table, I probably wouldn't have made a remark if I wasn't already in the conversation. BUT, I think its these types of conversations where the ebbing away at privileged and prejudicial thought gets accomplished.

The prejudices and preconceived notions are conversations that we need to have on both sides of the racial coin.

I have personally reinterpreted the word and attached it to Negro making it a distinctively racialized term for the exact reasons as outlined in the main blog piece. And it also has really transcended into a class issue as another commenter noted. Being uppity is also a sign of being "bougie" or just being real high maintenance if you will.

But, kudos for having the dialogue with Spock.

Jenny said...

My mother is from the south and I never associated uppity with any race And I have ony heard it used about white women. so I asked her about it and she said that all the times she has heard the word it was in conjunction with the n word.

geNeric_gurL said...

Today I learned something new.

I have love for this post.


Bek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. Potts said...

Okay, you're right. Spock is a privileged white male. I am just tired of the white guilt thing. Obviously I'm treading on thin ice here, but there is nothing that we privileged white people are doing or not doing that is preventing black people from becoming privileged black people. They can earn it if they want to, and I commend those who have.

Hey, let's start a flame war on Azucar's bloggy blog! Just kidding. Really.

Bryn said...

This post was very interesting!
And I really enjoyed the articles you suggested too!
Growing up in CA in the 70's and 80's I really didn't get racism. I didn't see it around me and wondered why people where still complaining about it. Then I read the story of The Delaney Sisters and realized that the lynchings were just not that long ago and realized that there were places in the US that were not like CA.
The idea, from one of the articles that you suggested was, that racism has become more nuanced is very interesting!
Thanks for the education!

Tzipporah said...

Good post. Good links.

As someone else who knows the history of the word, the beginning of your story was like a slap in the face.

I believe "uppity" was also used about women who thought they could have paying jobs or (G-d forbid!) take positions of leadership over male employees, in the 70s.

This is me said...

I feel the same way about the phrase "cotton-pickin'". I'm from Texas and heard/used this phrase a lot until I understood the connotation and then took it out of my vocabulary. (In elementary school, we did an exercise in PE called "cotton pickers" -- my head spins at how that was allowed and no one thought a single thing about it!)
Anyway, thanks for educating everyone about another misunderstood word!

Likely said...

Thanks for the schooling, oh wise one!

Bryn, I have to tell you after being raised in the west, it is soo different out here in the east. Racism is alive and well.

Interestingly enough I feel like I am stereotyped and profiled just as much...

The whole privileged thing bothers me a lot too Mrs. P, always has irked me! I wish there was a different way of saying it.

I read this recently somewhere on the Internet and it made sense to me:

Who is more "privileged"?

(1) a businessman who risks everything and makes a million?
(2) an engineer who works hard and makes $100k?
(3) a person who does nothing and receives $10k benefit?

In answering the question one identifies one's politics. But for a politician purchasing votes from (3), the first task is surely to demonize (1).

It may be a little off topic, but I thought it worth sharing.

Likely said...

And Spock,

maybe you meant cocky?

by...K@ Ashcroft said...

Wow. I had no idea. Thank you for teaching me something new today.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the "had no idea" group. Could be my West Coast upbringing. Or perhaps text books that glossed over the hate that was (and still is, in some cases) running rampant in our country.

Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Now, please tell me that "hoity toity" doesn't have a racial connotation.

Miggy said...

I'm a little late on commenting, but I too had no idea that the word 'uppity' was racially charged. Like others I thought it was just another way of saying snooty, too good, etc.

Also, I agree with a lot of the comments about racism in that I feel like I'm more racist that I ever had a natural inclination to be because media and social cultural tells me I am. I feel like just noticing someone is black makes you racist. Sometimes I feel like I have to be super nice to black people just so they know I'm not racist...but what could be more racist than that? I hate that if I, as a white person, were to act annoyed or frustrated with someone who is black it automatically means that I'm being racist... not that I'm having a bad day, or feel frustrated toward the situation, etc.

I'm not saying racism isn't alive and well, I know it is. But I do think there are plenty of instances where the term racism is thrown around way too easily and frequently.

Amy said...

A. I hate the privileged white male thing too. I live in the South, and my father (who was from a poor country family and the first to graduate from HS let alone college) lost his job so that affirmative action could do it's job and he could be replaced by a Cuban woman. We had no money for us to do anything, let alone send me to college, so I went to community college and worked two jobs to put myself through.
B. Why do we have to apologize for having a racial conversation? Why do we have to say "please don't think less of me" or "please don't be mad at me?" Why are we so afraid to talk about this and have differing opinions?
C. I am so late to this game I realize no one is going to read this so it's probably a moot point anyway.
D. I am not going to stop saying "cotton-pickin." Sorry, but as a Mormon there is practically nothing I can say when I drop something on my toe. Besides, whatever it might have meant 75 years now, it does not mean it now as I yell at my children to CLEAN THEIR COTTON-PICKIN ROOM.

martha corinna said...

Maybe it was just where I grew up, but I didn't know that you could use uppity for anything other than a racial slur.

And I don't come from wealth by any means, but I do see myself as "privleged" when I compare myself to most of the world. For me, part of gratitude is understanding where I came from, the opportunity my ansestors had and the history that is America. Astonishing. Really. That means for me, I can actually consider what I think, what I say, and what I understand as truth. I would rather spend my life being a little more understanding because I see that I've really been delt some pretty awesome cards.

Quinn said...

Oh wow! Good to know; will never use that word casually again.

Jenny said...

Ok so I was talking with a white friend on Saturday who grew up in Illinois and Ut and she called her white SIL uppity. I stopped the conversation and mentioned this and none of the 5 white women I was with had any clue that uppity was a racially charged term. They all used it occasionally to talk about snooty white women.

Interesting, no?

Nicolette said...

It's a beautiful thing when one post on a fantastic blog can make such a necessary conversation happen. Racism can happen by simply not talking about race, either from discomfort, fear, or ignorance. Thank you so much for your thoughtful post.

Amy said...

Super late to this, but is using a term such as uppity, without knowing it's origins, a racist remark,or simply an ignorant one?

I vote for ignorant. But I can guarantee that if the desire ever came upon me to use this word (not that it has ever been a part of my vocabulary) I can now honestly say it will stay locked in the back of my brain.

Because as much as I hate that intentions are not nearly as important as perceptions in our society, I would never want to unintentionally offend someone of color. Never.

So consider me educated.