If anything became clear during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, it was that the United States was going to have trouble handling the prospect of not just a black president, but his black wife, too. The media landscape almost immediately ran rife with racial insults—blatant, coded, and along all points in between—a flow of invective that has never really ceased. In June that year, a Fox News graphic referred to Michelle Obama, a married mother of two and a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, as “Obama’s baby mama.” An onstage fist bump exchanged by the couple at a campaign event in St. Paul, Minnesota, became, in the fevered imagination of Fox News host E.D. Hill, something potentially sinister: “A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?” The New Yorker later attempted to parody this moment on its cover, depicting an Afro’ed and militant Michelle giving some dap to her husband, who was dressed like a Muslim cleric, in the Oval Office. The conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, in her 2009 book Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies, dropped the honorific typically owed the first lady and called her one of her husband’s “cronies of color.” This past March, Univision talk show host Rodner Figueroa, during a live episode of the news gossip program “El Gordo y la Flaca” (“The Scoop and the Skinny”) said Michelle Obama “looks like she’s from the cast of Planet of the Apes.” Figueroa lost his job for those choice remarks, but the public reaction to the slur itself was rather muted. Perhaps people had grown used to that sort of thing. And in perhaps the most notorious incident, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, in an on-air discussion in 2011 about whether the American public was responsible for covering the costs of the Obama family’s vacations (it’s not), declared that the first lady and her family had displayed “a little bit of “uppity-ism.”
“Uppity,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is a word used to describe a black person who doesn’t know her or his “place.” Derived from the British word “uppish,” which is defined as “arrogantly self-assertive,” “uppity” was in use as early as the 1880s when it appeared in one of the Uncle Remus folktales. In a chapter titled “Why the Hawk Catches Chickens,” Remus, in his Gullah dialect, refers to a big hawk who “sholy git dat ar uppity little rooster.” F.L. Allen’s 1952 social history, The Big Change, described objections to “uppity niggers” with cars, as if Jim Crow’s army needed a reason to vent against blacks.
I have been called uppity once, by a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to college. There were likely other times behind my back, more than I would care to know, but that incident was plenty. Not that I’m complaining, exactly. Uppity is as paternalistic as it is racist. It conveys the belief that a black person is somehow lower than other people; they are in need of rhetorical guidance back into the subjugated existence that makes the dominant caste more comfortable. Heaven forbid one of these black folks even consider her or himself an equal, or even superior.
Yet unlike “nigger”—a word directed to me, again in college, during a late-night prank phone call I received at my predominantly African-American dormitory during freshman year—I’ve always felt oddly affirmed by being branded as uppity. It’s a term of hatred, to be sure, but someone who thinks me uppity considers my existence a threat. That’s a good thing. I am a threat to anyone who would use the word, to them and to their detestable worldview. And Michelle Obama’s life, perhaps even more so than her husband’s, is a testament to that threat.
The first lady has recently made a point of addressing the idea of uppity-ism in her public remarks, and reminding the United States of the insults and slights against her, in a commencement speech she delivered in May at Tuskegee University in Alabama. She told the graduates there of what had gone on during her husband’s first campaign. “Folks had all sorts of questions for me,” she said. “What kind of first lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on?” These kinds of questions are asked of politicians in this country all the time, and the wife of a man running for president should expect them more than most. But they also have a special, and undermining, appeal to sexists seeking to challenge the manhood of the president, whose job requires the kind of fortitude and strength that our culture has misguidedly believed to be only found in men. (Although another first lady, Hillary Clinton, may change that.)
But Michelle Obama is not like her predecessors in the White House; her experience must always be considered in the context of race. When she was campaigning for her husband, she was also running to be the country’s first African-American first lady, so she had to address an additional set of questions, one that embodied, without anyone needing to state it explicitly, the threat that is uppity-ism. “Was I too loud?” she said she was asked. “Or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?” Like uppity-ism, the depiction of black women as enraged and injurious to men is a longstanding and nefarious stereotype. Historian Blair L.M. Kelley, in a September article for The Root, wrote that some of the earliest representations of black women in American popular culture, the “Negro wenches” of minstrel stage plays, were “grotesque, loudmouthed, masculine, and undeserving of the protections afforded to the white ‘ladies’ of American society.” (They weren’t black or women—white men in blackface played the roles.)
Obama assured the Tuskegee graduates that she understood the difference between racially tinged questions and overt racism. She knew that, in a larger context and compared with people less empowered than she—racism in this country can still mean being denied a house or a job or far worse—being called uppity isn’t so bad. And she’s right. But I’m glad she brought it up, and I’m glad she didn’t let the slights go. I’m always happy to see a black person in the public sphere reflect black reality, for good or bad. It’s a break from the monolithic white narratives we have for so long been forced to listen to and recount. But small, perhaps unintentional acts of racism—microaggressions—like this feed into and bolster the systemic and more obvious manifestations of racial discrimination.
I’m hardly the first person to conceive of what uppity might mean in these terms. In 2011, former Major League Baseball player and National League President Bill White published Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play. He offered his own definition of “uppity” for an article on the book by The New York Times: “It’s a person, especially someone of a different color, who says, ‘Hell no’ and stands his ground.” It’s a fundamental declaration of the power of black ambition and steadfastness—something that I’ll never look down on or want to give up. In that light, the uppity-ism espoused by people like Rush Limbaugh is worth claiming for our own and defending.
The first lady has not limited her message to one graduating class. It has become a recurring motif in her advice to young people, a sort of stump speech. On June 9, Obama addressed a high school commencement at Chicago’s Martin Luther King Jr. Preparatory High School, located on her native South Side. She told the students that she was proud, inspired, and excited by the sight of them in their caps and gowns—but that she wasn’t surprised at their success. Too often, she said, “[W]e hear a skewed story about our communities—a narrative that says that a stable, hardworking family in a neighborhood like Woodlawn or Chatham or Bronzeville is somehow remarkable; that a young person who graduates from high school and goes to college is a beat-the-odds kind of hero.” If there’s a way to be more uppity than telling a bunch of black teens on Chicago’s South Side that their excellence is not rare, and is in fact expected, I’d like to hear it. Thank goodness she said it.
Being deemed “uppity” signals a specific kind of arrogance to people who cling to the prerogatives of a predominantly white power structure. And because of that, and the defiance I ascribe to it, I embrace the term. Not as a form of oppression, as those who use it seek to define it, but for what it literally represents: a desire to prove yourself superior to an inherently racist society and above the category they would otherwise assign you.
This story was updated to reflect the version that appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of our magazine.