Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I want to talk to you about language.

I want to talk to you about the words we choose and what they mean and how carefully and lovingly we should wield them, especially in these delicate, volatile times when there is so much repair work to be done and so little room for new damage. We are stretched thin and the only way to reach out to one another is gently, carefully, and with mindfulness. Remember: words are powerful. They manifest our realities in many ways. The words we hear and use inform our perception, and too often we toss them around thoughtlessly without fully exploring their meanings and connotations.
I am saying this because I have noticed that a lot of white folks truly believe that because they have never used the "N" word, they have never employed racist or racially-insensitive verbiage, and are genuinely indignant at any suggestion otherwise. I'm talking about the well-intended white folks who claim and genuinely believe they "do not have a racist bone in their body" and yet get on board readily with the rhetoric surrounding Mike Brown and what he did or did not "deserve" based on the perception of him.
With the advent of so-called "political correctness", there has been less and less tolerance for overtly racist language, and so, no, in civilized society, we definitely don't accept or condone use of the "N" word anymore. When people used that word freely back in the day, it was clear to all what was meant by it: it was used by white people to relegate a black person's status to "less-than"; even in the absence of overt malice, its intent was always to devalue and reduce. Later, as it lost favor among polite society, the intent behind its use was (is) to vilify, dehumanize, and to openly express contempt.
But since as a society we have basically agreed that it is no longer acceptable to use such overtly offensive language, I have noticed that in place of this one taboo word, there are now several other words we can get away with using which convey basically the same thing.
Specifically I want you to consider the word "thug" and what you mean when you use it, and the connotations it conjures in the mind of your audience.
The actual definition of this word:
Thug (\ˈthəg\) *noun*
1. a cruel or vicious ruffian, robber, or murderer.
So, by definition, any number of people of any background could be described as "thugs", right? But today, what people usually mean when they toss the word "thug" around is very specific. Generally, when we hear "thug" it is referring to a young, urban black male who may embody any, all, or none of the following stereotypical behaviors: listens to rap music (too loud), is dressed in a particular fashion (possibly with sagging pants), who may or may not sell drugs (but probably smokes weed) and who may (probably) have a (illegal) gun. This person is presumed to live outside of the law and to either be a criminal or a potential criminal. This person is assumed to be undereducated, under-or-unemployed, and, of course, unduly aggressive. Please note that it is not always used to describe how this person is actually living, however, because that person need not actually BE a "thug" by definition. He need only be perceived as one by these unreliable cues we rely on (loud rap music, sagging pants, etc).
White Americans (and some black Americans too) disapprove of so-called "thugs". We are afraid of them. Unfortunately, this fear renders us unable to see each person as an individual. It allows us to dehumanize through judgment and disapproval. Because when we have decided someone is a "thug", our conscience has already concluded that this person is expendable by presuming he is "dangerous". So by extension, whatever befalls him is his own doing because he was a "thug" and therefore probably deserved it.
It seems to me that "thug" is the new catch-all word that is used to appease our collective conscience when we consider what happened to Mike Brown, as in, "Well, he was a thug; what do you expect?" as though by reducing him to that, we can collectively wash our hands of the whole unpleasant ordeal. As if by committing to the narrative that he was an inherently dangerous "thug," we can render his death and the outrage it sparked irrelevant.
In the context of right now, our collective comfort with this term reeks of respectability politics and victim-blaming. It is loaded with judgment. People are using it to describe those "looting and rioting" in Ferguson, and feeling very righteous in doing so (because looting) without critically engaging in any of this…but then also applying it uncritically and imprecisely to any black person who isn't adhering to the sartorial or behavioral rules of polite (white) society, even when we have no idea whether that person is actually a "cruel or vicious ruffian, robber, or murderer."

So the problem for me is that it is a lazy, reductionist term that simply serves to allow distance between that person's humanity and our own. It's just a new and politically correct way to express contempt and disregard for people who aren't like us. Basically, it's the new, socially-acceptable "N" word, and I submit that we need to eradicate it from the discourse if we are ever going to be able to get anywhere.

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