Getting "uppity"

Yesterday, writing about "politically correct" language, I referred to the use of uppity in describing the Obamas as a racist code word. There are, of course, people, particularly defenders of Rush Limbaugh, who turn to the dictionary and say that no, the word means taking airs above one's station and can be completely innocent of any racist tinge. (Indeed, since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been freely applied to women.)

For them, and others who may have had a sheltered upbringing, here's a little context.


The Oxford English Dictionary, which indeed has non-racist citations, also includes this specimen:

"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 [you know which epithet I've deleted]' on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow."


Those who think that there is a racist connotation to uppity, but that it has faded away in our enlightened age, some examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

PBS NewsHour, 1996: BARI-ELLEN-ROBERTS: I was called uppity. I was called a smart-mouthed little colored girl.

Basquiat, 1996: You get a girlfriend and a little attention and then start acting all uppity with me. # BASQUIAT # (mortified)' Uppity?' Like as in' uppity [expletive deleted again]?'

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1996: Calloway's view: " They got that plantation syndrome (in Belle Glade). Here is the master, Doug Wedgworth:' Yes'm, boss.' See, I'm an uppity black boy (to them).

Gloria Naylor, Essence, 1995: in the 1950's, uppity little colored girls were as unwelcome in their own culture and in the larger society as their sisters are today.

Houston Chronicle, 1995: " While we could compete against the white cowboys, we had to ride after they were done at the end of the show, " he said. # Plus, the black cowboy had to mount the bull from the back to avoid being seen by the fans and appearing too " " uppity, " he said.

Letter to editor San Francisco Chronicle, 1994 about Willie Brown: worse, he is uppity, and the combination of black, smart and uppity is not forgivable to your average Republican

CBS, 1994: MITCHELL: How did white cadets look at Johnson Whittaker? Mr-MARSZALEK: Oh, the -- the -- the -- they thought he had absolutely no business being there. MITCHELL: Uppity? Mr-MARSZALEK: Uppity. Exactly. It's an example of someone who does not know his place.


Homeland, 1993: He hated the idea that the nigras were free, he hated what he called their uppity pertinacious ways.

Essence, 1993: The racial factor of the " uppity Black " enters in.

Washington Monthly, 1993: Congress became " The Liberal Plantation, " where massuhs Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden lash uppity black conservatives.

And, perhaps most notably, you may recall this passage from Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearing:

"And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you."

If you still think that uppity carries no racial charge, perhaps you could ask Mr. Justice Thomas what he thinks.