NPR logo How Bad is 'Uppity'?

How Bad is 'Uppity'?

Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia

Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia has said he didn't know "uppity" had an offensive connotation. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

toggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Awhile back I wrote a piece about Karl Rove referring to Barack Obama as "arrogant" and asserted that when the Roves of the world use that word around Obama, what they really mean is "uppity."

As to be expected, there were those who've never had to decode codification who took the stance that sometimes arrogant just means arrogant.


And sometimes eggplant just means eggplant.

Be that as it may, the arrogant/uppity debate is now moot, as there seems to be a spate of folks quitting the euphemisms altogether and going straight for the pejorative. Over the few last weeks, we've had U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican, refer to the Obamas — both Barack and Michelle — as uppity, and had Rick Goddard, a GOP congressional candidate in Georgia, use the same word to describe MSNBC reporter Ron Allen. Goddard used the word in reference to a slightly testy interview Allen conducted with Newt Gingrich at the bastion of diversity that was the Republican National Convention.

The word "uppity" has a long and ugly history, and was usually part of a two-word phrase that roughly ran: "uppity n*gger."

Of course, now that the word is out there, uppity's got its defenders, too. They say that since it can be directed toward anyone of any race, it can't be offensive exclusively to people of color. Except, really, how many times do you hear the word used in conjunction with a white person? White people are supposed to have ego and ambition, so they can't possibly be uppity. It's minorities who have the temerity to want to rise above their station.

And it's journalists of color who have the nerve to ask conservatives tough questions.

Though unapologetic for the use of the word, Westmoreland says he didn't know that uppity had an offensive connotation. A difficult claim to believe coming from a 58-year-old man who grew up in the segregated South. I'm reminded of Jesse Jackson's dismay when he was informed that it's inappropriate to refer to New York City as "Hymietown." Who'd have thought?

Westmoreland's final fallback position is the same as most who refuse to either man up and apologize or just get honest and admit they're bigoted: Webster's. Westmoreland says that because there is a dictionary definition for "uppity," people's sensitivity to the word is overdone.

I would point out there are also dictionary definitions for "coon" and "tar baby" and "macaca."

And there is also a dictionary definition for "cracker." So I'm sure neither Westmoreland nor Goddard would take offense if I refer to them as one.



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Or you could just respond with one of my favorites -- I've been called worse by better.

Adults should have thicker skins than this. It's a rough world out there.

Sent by Zaya | 5:10 PM | 9-16-2008

Ambitious white people are "what America stands for."

Ambitious black people are "uppity" and need to be destroyed.

Sent by Miles Ellison | 8:55 PM | 9-16-2008

Uppity - Surely the millions of white Americans who still regard the movie Blazzing Saddles as a film classic will remember the Slim Pickens line early in the movie after he was hit over the head with a shovel by Cleavon Little - "some uppity n_ _ . ."!

Is a spade still just a spade?

Latest generic code in the business world - but "he's a good guy!"

We all move through a mine field of code every day.

Sent by T Fountain | 9:05 AM | 9-17-2008

Thank you Visible Man for visibly and clearly challenging all people on these issues. As an African American Christian Conservative (yes we are out HERE) I'm tired of well meaning people assuming or pretending that racism and racist ideology doesn't exist simply because those same well meaning people aren't racist. Well guess what, many of the friends of these well meaning people ARE. And the Grand Old Party has ignored its continuing issues with racism too, too long. Shame on Rick and shame on all people--including so called Christians--who continue to condone his views. Rick would have never called a white politician "uppity". He knows it, I know it and "well meaning" whites should NOW know it.

Sent by Redeemed | 9:46 AM | 9-17-2008

Barak Obama must have the thickest skin in the world to be a black man running for president, and any black person who lives in this world and stays sane has a very thick skin indeed.

But it's not about having thick skin; it's about revealing persistent prejudice that reinforces and perpetuates a host of injustices.

Thanks, John Ridley for another insightful commentary.

Sent by Andrea | 11:47 AM | 9-17-2008

What do you mean by "thick skin"? Quietly suffering white racism and not say a word?

Sent by corner pharmacist | 12:20 PM | 9-17-2008

While my experience is limited to Virginia and Georgia, I find it laughable that anyone, regardless of race, living in either of these states could claim to not know the thinly veiled meaning of the word 'uppity', especially when applied to African-Americans. 2 possibilities-either more GOP B.S. OR they are so far out of touch with the general population that they truly have no idea.


With a nod to Zaya...The bad form shown by these Republican clowns using racial perjoratives is inexcusable. It's not really a question of having a thick skin or not-I suspect that Obama has had to develop a very thick skin to rise to the level of success he enjoys today...

At issue is the larger question of continuing to use language which is demeaning, hurtful, and inflammatory. How sad that their vocabularies are so limited...

Sent by Sizemorpheus | 12:26 PM | 9-17-2008

What amazes me is that some "well meaning" people still refuse to view Westmoreland or Goddard's comments in their truest light--vestigates of the ugliness of institutionalized privilege. Here's hoping these gentlemen and other members of the GOP try to remedy their actions, their thoughts. . .and their hearts.

Sent by Caryngton Jaymes | 2:20 PM | 9-17-2008

These people are using language with absolute control and awareness of precise shades of meaning. That's what they DO, for goodness sake. To think otherwise is to give credit where none is due. This sort of flirting with the ugly edges of ethnicly- charged language will get more blatant in the coming days. By this you can tell with whom you are dealing, as only the crypto-racist will use that sort of cant.

Sent by Paul Londraville | 3:52 PM | 9-17-2008

I had a Shakespeare professor who insisted on calling Elizabethan proto-feminists, uppity women. I explained how the phrase made me uncomfortable and he refused to stop.

Sent by Rachel | 4:33 PM | 9-17-2008

Bravo! If nothing else this campaign has to a great extent exposed American's real racial and class views.
It's a sad reflection that in many ways we've progressed little, if at all, since the days of segregation.

Sent by Jim Carpenter | 7:36 PM | 9-17-2008

Thank you, Dick, for your insightful and truthful piece about the word uppity. The word is just has harmful as nigger. America really hasn't come that far. If white people want to be racist, they are going to be so. Point and fact....Miles Ellison's commet. Hopefully our Creator will be able to change the hearts of people like that. You can't do anything but pray for them and let them continue living in the abyss of darkness that is their "life". I hope that you'll write other poignant pieces.

Sent by Laya Fields | 4:24 PM | 9-18-2008

Hi John: Thru a co-worker's recommendation just started reading your various insightful critiques. The word "uppity" is not just confined to Southern bigoted Republicans. Just last month, George Lakoff, a world-renowed linguistics professor at the University of Ca Berkeley & founder of the Progressive Think Tank The Rockidge Institute used the word "uppity" describing Michelle Obama in a letter to the Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle which provoked a negative respose from readers that he had to re-send another letter the same week clarifying what he actually meant when he used the word "uppity"

Sent by Cary Sekoff | 6:05 PM | 9-18-2008

As an Australian watcher of American politics it is interesting to note some cultural differences between our very similar nations. The word 'uppity' is not used here all that often, but it is used and recognised. What is does not have is the connection to the 'N-word' after it. That's not much of a shock as we don't have much of a population of african heritage here.
Anyhow, I just thought I'd make the observation.
I'd also like to wish the Great Republic all the best in the coming election. May it bring a sense of renewal and unity to your nation.

Sent by Adam | 12:12 PM | 9-19-2008

Mr. Ridley, maybe you could publish a list of "code" words so the nonracist, but apparently ignorant white people can avoid offending people.

Sent by Jim | 1:25 PM | 9-19-2008

John, please consider this. YOU have allowed Mr. Westmoreland to hurt you with HIS words. This is precisely what he was hoping to do... hurt you. At that moment in the future (if ever) when you allow yourself to see yourself as simply an American, then and only then will you understand that this type of remark has no merit and thus no real power to hurt you. It only hurts Mr. Westmoreland as it makes him look like a complete idiot.

Go find online, comedian Sandra Bernhard's recent tirade aimed at Governor Sarah Palin and ask yourself; does this type of commentary advance the cause of Democrats or does it only serve to make them look shamefully stupid by association?

Sent by Jon | 4:30 PM | 9-19-2008

I'm white and have been called "uppity" more times than I could count. I think you should choose your qualms a bit more wisely...Now, a black person can never be called any variation whatsoever of "arrogant" because that automatically is evidence of racial slurring? Come on!

Sent by yanya | 5:20 PM | 9-22-2008

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Sent by timothy moriarty | 1:28 AM | 9-23-2008

When will white people just own up to what went down. Barack can't answer back, if he does he is the angry black man. So many white people are afraid their daughters are going to bring home for the holidays.

Sent by felice robinson | 3:29 AM | 9-23-2008

Thanks for the great editorial. Those who pretend that referring to a black person as "Uppity" is not racial slurring is either very young and has never open a history book or is in denial. Some political pundits who refer to Obama as "elitist" also are playing on fears insecure people like Westmoreland have of the Uppity Negro.

Sent by Sharon J | 12:22 PM | 9-23-2008

Interesting, thoughtful and heart filled responses like this are unusual. Thank you all

Sent by nick | 1:49 PM | 9-23-2008

I'm white and have been called "uppity" more times than I could count. I think you should choose your qualms a bit more wisely...Now, a black person can never be called any variation whatsoever of "arrogant" because that automatically is evidence of racial slurring? Come on!

You're missing the entire point, it's not any connotation (sp?) of the word "arrogant" that is the problem, but one specific word in a specific context. The issue is not how it hurt Mr. Ridley's feelings, or my feelings (it didn't for the record...I find comments like Westmoreland's pathetic and oddly humorous), or any other black person's feelings. The issue is that is a reflection of WESTMORELAND'S feelings....thinly veiled bigotry towards another race. As long as people like him are still being elected, blacks in America are always going to have VALID grievances.

Sent by Rob in Chicago | 4:23 PM | 9-26-2008