It was late on the night of my 19th birthday, days before Halloween. I was meandering back to my suite with several fresh acquaintances, my American flag cape and star-spangled hat crumpled after the night’s revels. I brushed shoulders with someone walking the other way.
“My bad,” I said, quickly raising a hand in apology.
“How can you wear that shit?” came the response. “Friggin’ Uncle Tom.”
I stopped, stunned and turned around. Suddenly, I was alone, my new friends had vanished, and I was left staring into the face of a fellow black Yale student. I wondered — and am still wondering — how someone who looks so much like me could ever call someone who looks like me such a filthy epithet. He didn’t know me. He had never walked in my shoes, yet he thought he should call me out for celebrating the United States — for taking pride in America.
Uncle Tom is a particularly, specifically painful slur. Calling someone an Uncle Tom is worse — far worse — than calling someone a n—–. Uncle Tom labels someone a weak-willed, subservient coward, who is simultaneously aware that their lesser status is based on the color of their skin. Branding someone an Uncle Tom names them as a traitor to their race, a subhuman who actively helps the oppression of their own people.
I’ll remember that moment of perfect, painful clarity for the rest of my life, but the remainder of the night passed in a blur. The long, heated, loud discussion I had with this fellow student seems like a fever dream. The subsequent stumbling walk back to my suite, tears fogging my vision, where my suitemate comforted me in our common room seems unreal.
After a restless night, I had one question: Why? What would make someone think they had the right to call me an Uncle Tom? What would ever make someone want to?
America is certainly an imperfect democracy. I can understand why some of my black classmates may question how we can love a country in which the majority chose a leader who ran a campaign based on fear, hatred and bigotry. How do I support a society in which, for decades, a proportionally larger number of black Americans have died fighting for America without fully experiencing the liberty that their sacrifices deserved? How can I countenance a system whose cities and economy were literally built by my enslaved ancestors?
Can I honestly call myself a patriot when Nazis in Charlottesville and Ku Klux Klan members in Texas are calling themselves the same thing?
This question isn’t an easy one, but as an aspiring engineer, I believe that every problem has an answer. For America, that solution won’t be easy, and won’t happen on its own. Nonetheless, I think the United States can solve inequality, eliminate prejudice and break the cycle of systemic racism and injustice.
Many of our classmates will serve the United States in diverse capacities. Some are already enrolled in ROTC while others will no doubt become elected officials or public servants. Other students will work to advance frontiers both cultural and scientific. Some of those ROTC cadets, journalists and engineers will be black. Although we will still face racial inequities, I won’t consider them Uncle Toms for serving their country, but as peers working hard to do the right thing.
I believe you have to love America if you want to change it.
I love my country but am in no way satisfied by the America I live in. I am patriotic because I have hope that the United States will continue to change for the better. I will wear red, white and blue not to endorse this country’s numerous failures, but to pledge myself towards helping improve it.
The next afternoon, I received a message from my aggressor. He apologized profusely and explained that a growing sense of helplessness and pessimism fueled his hateful words. He wanted to have a conversation with me and learn more about my view, before judging my choices. Instead of rushing to judgement, we all — irrespective of race, political leanings, gender or sexual preference — need to take a minute to consider another perspective. Conservatives, straight men and white people have neither a monopoly on prejudice nor on the ability to jump to conclusions. To be clear, I’ve made my share of mistakes — I still haven’t had that conversation. But instead of rushing to judge another person for the color of their skin, the language they speak or the costume on their backs, take a minute to learn about them and their stories. And if people learned a little more before they judged? Maybe then we’d start to have an America everyone could be proud of.
Alex Hoganson is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .