Racial Offense Taken When 'Uppity' Rolls Off Certain Tongues

The term means different things to different people, but racial element lingers.

September 17, 2008, 11:53 AM

Sept. 18, 2008— -- When a white congressional candidate recently referred to a black news reporter as "uppity," he coincidentally joined company with another white politician who, later that day, applied the same description to Sen. Barack and Michelle Obama.

Both of the Georgians claimed ignorance of the racial history of the word "uppity," a derogatory term applied throughout the Jim Crow South to blacks who dared to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

But for contemporary critics of the word, ignorance of the potential offense is little excuse in many cases, particularly for older white Southerners who are most likely steeped in the traditions of the old social order.

"Being from the South, people of an older generation tend to have that phrase at least ringing in the back of their head whenever the term 'uppity' is used," said Susan Tamasi, a specialist in sociolinguistics at Emory University in Atlanta.

The word "uppity," which means haughty, or arrogant, made its first appearance in the 1880s in the "Uncle Remus" stories, a series of black songs and folk tales written in slave dialect. By the 1950s, the word had adopted a virulent racial element, Tamasi said.

The 1952 edition of the Oxford dictionary listed the term "uppity (N-word)" with this definition: "Above oneself, self-important, 'jumped up,' haughty, pert, putting on airs" -- although there is race-neutral usage spanning the dictionary's history.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said earlier this month he had no idea he was using such an incendiary term when, as reported by The Hill, he said: "Honestly, I've never paid that much attention to Michelle Obama. Just what little I've seen of her and Sen. Obama is that they're a member of an elitist class ... that thinks they're uppity."

Westmoreland, 58, and raised in the South during the height of the civil rights movement, said he never heard the term used in a demeaning manner toward blacks.

"It is important to note that the dictionary definition of uppity is 'affecting an air of inflated self-esteem -- snobbish,'" the two-term legislator said in a statement. "That's what we meant by uppity when we used it in the mill village where I grew up."

Non-Southerners who make that argument find more sympathy among critics who say it's hard to believe that people of a certain age and raised in the South have never heard "uppity" used in a racial context.

"The implication is … there's a certain racial order to the world and this particular black man is not adhering to that," said Tina Harris, a professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in interracial communication.

Hours before Westmoreland's comments on Sept. 4, Republican congressional candidate Rick Goddard referred to a black reporter as "uppity" on a morning radio show in Macon, Ga.

"Last night, Newt Gingrich disarmed a very uppity newscaster who tried to question him on the capabilities and leadership of Gov. [Sarah] Palin," Goddard, 64, said, referring to MSNBC's Ron Allen.

Like Westmoreland, Goddard stood by his remarks and referred to the dictionary's definition of the word in deflecting criticism.

"A member of the media dropped all pretense of objectivity during an interview with Newt Gingrich to arrogantly launch an attack on Gov. Sarah Palin's experience, to which Rick came to her defense and simply evoked a word -- that by definition -- described the reporter's demeanor as being superior, arrogant and presumptuous," Tim Baker, Goddard's campaign manager, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

"To try and smear Rick's character by suggesting that he meant anything other than that definition is ludicrous," he said of Goddard, a decorated, career military man who settled in Georgia 10 years ago.

But given the tortured history between blacks and whites in the South, both men crossed the line in using the word and then claiming ignorance of its historical significance, said Gerald Horne, a history professor at the University of Houston.

"The whole notion of uppity Negroes ... was basically a tool, a device to make sure that Negroes would not seek to climb the socioeconomic ladder," said Horne, the author of "Powell v. Alabama: The Scottsboro Boys and American Justice."

"It's very unfortunate. A person in such a position should be aware of this history."