The Meaning of Uncle Tom: What It Is and How To Use It

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Have you read the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe? Do you understand what it means to call a person an Uncle Tom in modern-day America? This article will define Uncle Tom as The Word Counter’s word of the day. 

Then, it will explore the history of the term Uncle Tom so that you receive a deeper understanding of the offensive nature of this phrase. Finally, we will provide alternative terms you can use in place of Uncle Tom.

What Does Uncle Tom Mean?

According to Dictionary, the slur Uncle Tom is an offensive phrase that refers to a Black person (usually a Black man) who is considered by people in the African-American and Black community to be subservient to white people. If someone calls someone else this epithet, they are implying that they are a sell-out or overly submissive. 

People often compare the Uncle Tom caricature to the Mammy or Aunt Jemima caricatures, which were created in the wake of slavery. These offensive, disparaging caricatures portray Black people as content and loyal slaves who endear themselves to white people. These caricatures emerged in the 19th century after Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War.

These types of caricatures were often presented in things like minstrel shows and offensive comics, posters, or items for purchase.

What Is the Etymology of Uncle Tom?

The 20th-century term Uncle Tom comes from the title character in the Harriet Beecher Stowe anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Stowe’s novel, the Uncle Tom character is beaten to death by his master after he refuses to give him information about two female fugitive slaves.

Despite the fact that Uncle Tom is a subservient model slave and portrayed as fairly content with his lot in life, his master still kills him. Harriet Beecher Stowe sought to portray Uncle Tom as somewhat of a Christ figure, sacrificed for another’s sins

What Are Tom Shows?

While this book is anti-slavery, many people believe that it is not necessarily pro-Black. However, by the late 1800s, the novel had been adapted into a stage version called a Tom show, which nearly 50 companies performed all across the United States. In these stage versions, the Uncle Tom character is very different.

Often in the Tom shows, none of the brutalities of slavery were ever referenced, and all of the slaves were shown as happy people who enjoyed living in the slave system. This departure from the original version of Tom to make him even more subservient and demeaning led to the meaning of the disparaging slang term Uncle Tom. 

According to Ferris State University, the Uncle Tom character in the stage shows is unthinking and loyal to the point of ineptitude. In the novel, Uncle Tom is a God warrior who seeks to fulfill God’s will, but in the stage show, Tom blindly follows the leader and does not think for himself.

What Are Synonyms of Uncle Tom?

It is in poor taste to call someone Uncle Tom and can be incredibly offensive. However, if you are trying to describe someone or something as obedient or servile, you can reference this list of synonyms of the word obedient from Power Thesaurus.

When we use words, it is important to think carefully about their impact. Words and phrases like Uncle Tom can be very offensive to others, and you should think about how certain words and phrases might affect others before using them. 

To be on the safe side, opt for one of these synonyms in place of the term Uncle Tom:

  • accepting
  • accommodating
  • acquiescent
  • adaptable
  • agreeable
  • amenable
  • biddable
  • bowing down
  • complaisant
  • compliant
  • complying
  • conformable
  • conforming
  • controllable
  • cooperative
  • deferential
  • devoted
  • disciplined
  • docile
  • docious
  • ductile
  • duteous
  • dutiful
  • enslaved
  • faithful
  • filial
  • flexible
  • giving-in
  • good
  • governable
  • humble
  • lamblike
  • law-abiding
  • loyal
  • malleable
  • manageable
  • manipulable
  • meek
  • obeisant
  • obeying
  • obliging
  • obsequious
  • observant
  • orderly
  • passive
  • persuadable
  • pliable
  • pliant
  • resigned
  • respectful
  • servile
  • sheeplike
  • slavish
  • stepford
  • submissive
  • subservient
  • tame
  • tractable
  • unassertive
  • uncomplaining
  • unresisting
  • well behaved
  • well disciplined
  • well trained
  • well-behaved
  • willing
  • yielding

What Are Antonyms of Uncle Tom?

While you now know that it can be offensive to refer to someone as Uncle Tom, calling someone Uncle Tom implies that they are servile or obedient. To learn opposites of the word obedient, you can refer to the below list of antonyms of Uncle Tom from Power Thesaurus. 

Remember, it is never okay to call someone an Uncle Tom, and people will likely be very offended if you do so. Words have power, so use that power wisely:

  • adamant
  • as stubborn as a mule
  • assertive
  • bad
  • balky
  • bloody-minded
  • bossy
  • bull-headed
  • contemptuous
  • contrary
  • contumacious
  • defiant
  • determined
  • disobedient
  • disorderly
  • disrespectful
  • dogged
  • domineering
  • errant
  • firm
  • froward
  • hardheaded
  • headstrong
  • impolite
  • impudent
  • in your face
  • in-your-face
  • incompliant
  • inflexible
  • insolent
  • insubordinate
  • insurgent
  • intractable
  • lawless
  • misbehaving
  • mischievous
  • mulish
  • mutinous
  • naughty
  • noncompliant
  • not good
  • obdurate
  • obstinate
  • obstreperous
  • opinionated
  • perverse
  • rebellious
  • recalcitrant
  • refractory
  • resolute
  • restive
  • rude
  • sassy
  • self-willed
  • stubborn
  • stubborn as a mule
  • uncontrollable
  • undisciplined
  • ungovernable
  • unmanageable
  • unruly
  • untoward
  • unyielding
  • wayward
  • wild
  • willful


The definition of Uncle Tom is a Black man who acts in a subservient way to a white man. The term Uncle Tom is based on the fictional character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Obedient synonyms – 805 Words and Phrases for Obedient | Power Thesaurus 

Obedient antonyms – 529 Opposites of Obedient | Power Thesaurus 

Uncle tom Definition & Meaning | 

The Tom Caricature – Anti-black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum | Ferris State University