Uppity

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Rep. Lynn Westmoreland represents a Georgia district in the U.S. House. He's recently come under fire for a very puzzling comment:

Just from what little I've seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they're a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they're uppity

As might be expected, he's been criticized for using the word 'uppity' when he was talking about a successful black couple. But then there's his defense:

I've never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense. It is important to note that the dictionary definition of 'uppity' is 'affecting an air of inflated self-esteem -- snobbish.'

I've certainly heard it used in that sense, although it's never been from the mouth of someone who meant it. It's always been someone describing someone else's negative attitude toward "uppity Negroes". I'm not sure it's in common use anymore among genuine racists, but I wouldn't know, since I don't run in those circles. But I can imagine someone who doesn't travel in racist circles who also doesn't travel in very racially aware circles, where people might put it in the mouths of racists they're discussing. Such a person may have never heard the expression "uppity Negro". Sure, it's possible.

But there are two problems even if he really hasn't heard of that expression. The first is his claim that 'uppity' and 'elitist' are synonymous. I don't think that's true. To be uppity is to extend yourself above your place, which assumes there's a proper place you're supposed to remain in. To be elitist is to think oneself higher than others, which assumes you think you're better than others. The former is an attitude toward a place that someone else has judged fit for you. The latter is an attitude toward people you yourself have judged lower than you. So the elitist charge reflects badly on the views of the elitist. Saying someone is uppity reflects badly on the views of the person saying it. That's an important difference. Westmoreland may well not know that difference, but that would just show that he doesn't understand how the words are used.

If he's going to give this defense, he has to say not just that he was ignorant of a way of putting Negroes in their place that was very common in the place he represents in Congress, certainly during his own lifetime (he was born in 1950). He also has to admit to being pretty ignorant about the word's basic meaning even in a non-racial context.

But there's something even more puzzling about his statement. Read it carefully. He doesn't say that the Obamas are uppity, as a racist would. He says they think they're uppity. That means (if he understands the word, anyway) that he thinks they think they're rising above a place that they themselves would describe as their proper place, something they shouldn't rise above. Does he really think the Obamas think that's true of themelves? I doubt it. And that means there's yet another aspect of how the word 'uppity' is used that he doesn't understand. I'm beginning to think he just doesn't know much about the word at all. Perhaps he's heard it once or twice and somehow formed some false beliefs about how the word functions. I know I've found out real meanings of words that I had thought meant something else, usually inferred from a few occurrences in books I've read when I've used context clues to figure out the term but never bothered to look it up. It's possible that's what's happened here.

If that's right, he probably isn't lying when he says he's never heard it in a racial context. Someone familiar with that context isn't likely to misuse it in both of the ways that he does. But it's hard to say that it's not an ignorant statement. It's (at the very least) ignorant about what the word itself means and how it functions syntactically. I've only seen two news stories, a blog post, and a very long comment thread on this, but it's a little disturbing that I didn't see anyone making either of these points. Is the American public at large that ignorant of how this word is used? Maybe it's just left our national vocabulary except when referring to how racists talk, and that isn't enough to clue people in to how the word functions. Can that really be?

13 Comments

"He says they think they're uppity."

Well, if you're going to be picky, he says that the "elitist-class individual" of whom Mr. and Mrs. Obama are "a member" thinks that they're uppity.

There's no point attempting to parse such incompetent and ungrammatical language. The syntax can't indicate the intended meaning. I expect he was thinking both that the Obamas "are uppity" and that they "think they're better than everyone else", and ended up jumbling the two thoughts together (along with some linguistic noise).

I suppose that could explain it. But then we have to figure out if the meaning of indirect speech locutions like "Westmoreland said that..." is determined by speaker-meaning or sentence-meaning. I'm not sure if there's a literature on that, but the answer doesn't seem obvious to me. I think it's even plausible that they're ambiguous.

Let's suppose that he really did call them uppity. Is it REALLY unreasonable to think that he'd never heard the phrase 'uppity negro'?

I mean, I'd not heard the phrase until I read this post (so I'm taking your word on this Jeremy). I realize that I grew up, not in Georgia, but all the same, I didn't grow up in a bubble.

1) I've heard the word "uppity" used plenty of times in a non-racial context. I've also heard it used as a racist term, enough that I wouldn't use it.

2) As I read his comments and thought about them, I came to the conclusion that he just doesn't really know how to use the word properly. My line of thinking was similar to yours.

Jeremy,

I think you're wrong. See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uppity

It's got one definition: "putting on or marked by airs of superiority : arrogant, presumptuous"

only the last is suggestive of a person above their station. On the other hand, "airs of superiority" is pretty clear.

Next: http://dictionary2.classic.reference.com/search?q=uppity

Top definition: "affecting an attitude of inflated self-esteem; haughty; snobbish."

He might not have known of it's negative connotations, but he was right about the word--and I read it, I recalled that I had heard it used in the context of "snobbish" before, like the "uppity high-class", or something.

Politicians are often said to "tap dance". I can bet that no one who is thinking straight will write or say that of Obama, even if he appears evasive on an issue.

J, here's the American heritage definition:

up·pi·ty adj. Informal Taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one's station; presumptuous: "was getting a little uppity and needed to be slapped down" New York Times.

That fits much better with the only way I've heard it used.

Also, here's the first OED entry:

Above oneself, self-important, ‘jumped-up’; arrogant, haughty, pert, putting on airs. Cf. UPPISH a. 2d. a. attrib.

1880 J. C. HARRIS Uncle Remus 86 Hit wuz wunner deze yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck. 1933 Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Nov. 776/2 Grammy is living contentedly enough with an ‘uppity’ young creature named Penny. 1952 F. L. ALLEN Big Change II. viii. 130 The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity niggers’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow. 1982 B. CHATWIN On Black Hill v. 28 He had a head for figures and a method for dealing with ‘uppity’ tenants.

The last two examples are especially illustrative. Dictionaries attempt to capture what a word means based on how it's used. Some do a better job than others. In this case, the OED and American Heritage do a much better job of capturing what seems to me to be a crucial element of how this word is used, at least in recent decades.

I think the meaning is clear. He says that Barack and Michelle Obama are, together, "a member" of some "elitist-class individual." Presumably this individual is some sort of corporation. Perhaps it is a corporation comprising only elitist-class individuals, or perhaps membership in the corporation is what elevates people to the elitist class. (It's unclear whether one can be an elitist without belonging to this corporation.) However, the corporation collectively does not view the Obamas as proper members of the elitist class. It thinks they are "uppity," i.e., mere pretenders to elitist-class status.

So this has nothing to do with race. What Rep. Westmoreland means to say is simply that Barack and Michelle Obama are viewed by their fellow elitists as ordinary folks like us. He's paying them a great compliment.

Clearly.

Wow, this keeps getting worse and worse.

Sorry, but in my 30 years I've never once heard of "uppity" as a racial term. Maybe if I'd grown up in the South, I would have known that. "Uppity" to me would be entirely synonymous with "stuck-up", "elitist", or "snobby", and have no other contextual connotations. I'd describe Martha Stewart as "uppity", for example, and not think anything of it. And you probably wouldn't either - that is, apparently, unless she were black.

Maybe I'm way off base, but this seems to me to be a huge over reaction by people with an itchy trigger finger who are practically daring anyone to say anything that might even have the slightest hint of racism about our first black contender for president. I'm not sure most people, myself included, know the difference between "snobbish", "stuck-up", "ostentatious", "pretentious", "elitist", "persnickety", and "uppity" - But I think it was pretty clear that Westmoreland was making a judgment not about Obama's race, but about his character. I'd say, "lighten up", but it seems someone will probably misconstrue that as racist too...

@ Matt. People probably will construe "lighten up" as racist, but that's because people always say "lighten up" when they want to ignore racism.

Raina

You make a good point, and after re-reading my post, I can see that I probably didn't make mine very well. I am certainly not saying that real racism is something that should be taken lightly or ignored. It *does* still exist, though in a different form than it did before the civil right's movement in the 60's I think. My only point was, lets not confuse actual racism with this media-hyped fake verbal racism. If people keep crying wolf and pointing at things that aren't actually intended or taken as racist, then society will become even more desensitized to the places where racism really does exist and is most sinister in our society today (equal pay, equal opportunity, immigration, etc). My point was that Westmoreland made an asinine comment, yes... Was it racist in origin? Apparently. But, was it racist in intent? Doubtful. He should have just stuck with the word "elitist" which is the word I'd wager he was actually trying to use without all the baggage of "uppity". I know I for one will try to avoid that word now knowing its origin.

I was very surprised to hear that the word "uppity" is racist in origin. I grew up in Georgia, and my entire family is from very South Georgia. Granted, I grew up in Atlanta, but let's just say that unfortunately, my grandparents, while they were living, would use racist terms in normal conversation (of course my parents did not and taught us not to repeat what they said, but I still heard it). Even so, I never heard "uppity" used with a racist conotation. I, too, thought the term was synonomous with "persnickity," "snobby," and "stuck-up." As a lawyer, I consider myself a wordsmith and was concerned as to why I had no idea of the true meaning of the word, and a little embarrassed since I sometimes use the word when jokingly describing my snobby dog to people. I even took an African American literature course in college where I learned much more about offensive terms and never heard "uppity" used as a slur. When you look up the dictionary definitions of this word, there is no reference to "uppity negro" in the popular dictionaries. Unless you "run in racist circles," or were interested in studying the history of racism, I am not sure if a normal American, or even Southerner, would know the offensive nature of the word. Just my two cents...and might I add that I think the author's discussion of the congressman's quote was a fair and balanced discussion.

Just to be clear, no one's claiming the origin of the word is racist. What people are complaining about is that it's so often been used in a racist way when describing black people that it's a bit insensitive to use it of a black person, since it recalls that.

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