The slang term “Uncle Tom” is used in the African American or black community to describe someone who is perceived as overly ingratiating in interactions with white people. The term is meant to imply that the person is subservient and excessively deferential, behaving as someone of a lesser class or social status rather than treating whites as equals. Usually, this term is used as an insult.
The origins of this slang term lie in an 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In fact, the title character of the book is anything but subservient and accommodating, being unafraid to stand up for himself and his values. Stowe apparently wrote his character with the intent of turning him into a role model, but over time, his depiction was twisted on stage and screen, until the original identity of the character was overshadowed by a stereotypical cringing black man who is eager to please the white “master.”
The term appears to have entered common usage in the 1960s and 1970s, when the growing civil rights movement led many African Americans to stand up for their rights assertively. Members of the movement were encouraged to speak out and to refuse to allow themselves to be cowed by people with white skin. Acts of civil disobedience, such as sitting at “whites only” lunch counters, were committed with the goal of bringing civil rights to the forefront and promoting equality, and many of these measures were successful.
People who were afraid to participate in the civil rights movement began to be accused as being Uncle Toms, with critics claiming that they were bringing down all African Americans by behaving subserviently to the white community and cooperating with whites. The term also began to be used as a pejorative epithet for people who chose mainstream paths, like academic careers, even when these individuals worked hard to change the system from the inside. Anyone who was complicit with some aspect of white culture could be criticized, ranging from people who complied with segregationist policies to young black professionals.
As a general rule, this term is viewed as very offensive, and it is primarily used within the African American community. For someone outside this community to use the term, as Ralph Nader did in 2008 when referring to then-Senator Barack Obama, would be a gross breach of etiquette. Within the community, the use of "Uncle Tom" as an epithet varies considerably, reflecting the diversity of African American culture and language in the United States.