Why Knowing The History Behind ‘Well-Spoken’ And ‘Uppity’ Matters

New Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg found himself in hot water when he described Senator Cory Booker, one of just two Black men running for the Democratic nomination, as “well-spoken.” Booker was quick to respond, saying he was taken aback by the former NYC mayor’s use of a tired trope about African Americans.

In an interview with CBS This Morning on December 6, Bloomberg said the two politicians had endorsed each other numerous times throughout the years. “He’s very well-spoken,” Bloomberg said when answering a question about this month’s Democratic primary debate. “He’s got some good ideas. It would be better the more diverse any group is.” The upcoming Democratic debate will only feature white candidates after Senator Kamala Harris, the only Black woman running in the 2020 race, ended her campaign. In a Medium post, the California Democrat said that her campaign did not have the financial resources to sustain itself. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign,” she wrote. “And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.”

After Harris dropped out, Booker said it was concerning that a Black female candidate did not have the resources to continue when the Democratic Party “is significantly empowered by Black women voters.” In response, the New Jersey senator told Signal Boost on SiriusXM he was surprised by Bloomberg’s remarks, noting it showed some people did not understand the racist connotations of their words. “It’s sort of stunning at times that we are still revisiting these sort of tired, you know, tropes or the language we have out there that folks I don’t think understand,” Booker said. “And the fact that they don’t understand is problematic.”

Booker and fellow Democratic contender Julián Castro have bemoaned the lack of diversity in the Democratic presidential field. There are only four people of color running for the Democratic nomination: Booker, Castro, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former tech executive Andrew Yang, who is Asian American.

During his interview, Booker said he hopes Bloomberg “gets it now” and that his campaign is explaining to him why that phrase is so problematic. “I hope people around (Bloomberg) are talking to him about why that plays into what is for the Black community in particular, just these are signs of frustration that we continue to deal with, uh issues, whether it was the Black face controversies from earlier this year, to the challenges that I don’t think folks understand with Kamala dropping out of that race,” Booker said.

Bloomberg Apologizes

Following the backlash, Bloomberg apologized for his remarks but made no mention of the racist implications of his words while campaigning.

“I probably shouldn’t have used the word, but I could just tell you he is a friend of mine,” Bloomberg told CBS News. “He is a Rhodes Scholar, which is much more impressive than my academic background. I envy him.”

Bloomberg’s campaign did not immediately respond to questions about his initial remarks or why he felt the need to mention Booker is a Rhodes Scholar.

British TV Presenter Calls Meghan Markle “Uppity”

Across the Atlantic, a British TV host has faced criticism after he called the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, “uppity” in a debate over the royal’s demands for privacy. Markle, who is Black and is married to Prince Harry, has been subjected to enormous amounts of negative press coverage.

While interviewing a Canadian reporter on This Morning in July, Eamonn Holmes said that the royal couple should be more forthcoming about their lives since they were “taking from the public purse.” Reporter Lainey Lui said that it was unfair that Markle was getting the brunt of the backlash, Metro.co.uk reported.

“You do know why it’s landing on her,” Holmes answered. “If you have an uppity attitude, you’re only through the door two minutes, and suddenly you’re sitting at Wimbledon, with royal protection people going ‘no photographs,’ you do know.”

Holmes, a presenter for ITV, was questioned by the network after someone complained over the use of the racist term. ITV reportedly banned the word from being used in the future, Metro.co.uk reported. The network’s Head of Diversity Ade Rawcliffe said that Holmes is aware of the word’s meaning and has promised not to use it again.

Despite the backlash, Holmes has yet to apologize, instead telling Metro.co.uk that he has not “learnt anything from it.”

“I’d keep it as a national conversation. I don’t have anything to say about it,” Holmes said. “People can make their own judgment whether they think it was a deliberately racist remark or not, so that’s all I have to say about that. People can have their own views on it.” Dr. Stephane Dunn, a writer, filmmaker and professor at Morehouse College, told The North Star that Holmes’ white privilege is the reason why he claims he has not learned anything. “That’s what privilege is,” Dunn said. The professor added that if it had not been for the media uproar, Holmes would not have given his comments a second thought.

“It’s not like he was checking himself in the first place, right,” Dunn said. “See, it was already okay for him.”

Historical Meaning

Both “well-spoken” and “uppity” have deeply racist histories, with harmful connotations for Black people. In 2007, then-Senator Joe Biden referred to Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Biden was forced to apologize for the ill-conceived list of descriptors and was eventually chosen as Obama’s running mate. Biden served as Obama’s vice president for two terms, but his remarks launched a national conversation that is ongoing.

Following Biden’s remarks, journalist Lynette Clemetson wrote for The New York Times that when white people use words like “articulate,” or in this case “well-spoken,” they do so with a subtext of amazement that a Black person can be such a thing.

“Historically, it was meant to signal the exceptional Negro,” Michael Eric Dyson, an author and academic, told Clemetson. “The implication is that most Black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate.” Meanwhile, African Americans who were deemed to be “uppity” or “insolent” in the past could become victims of lynchings. According to PBS, statistics reveal that most victims of lynchings were political activists, labor organizers or Black men and women who defied white people’s expectations of Black deference.

Lynchings became a common method of mob justice after racial tensions in the U.S. exploded in the late 1800s after the freeing of slaves. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says that nearly 5,000 lynchings were recorded in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. Black people accounted for 72.7 percent of the 4,743 lynchings that occurred in the country during that time.

Dunn noted that the word uppity is a “loaded sociopolitical term” that suggests people are in a place or are occupying a space that they are not supposed to occupy. She told The North Star that the term has been applied to Black women who resisted against white subjection. Ida B. Wells, an iconic African American investigative journalist, was referred to as an “uppity N-word wench” for daring to question and critique of white male status quo, Dunn said.


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia, Australia and the Americas.