What’s in a word?

Standard

Words are interesting things.  The word “gay” for example.  According to my grandpa it once just meant happy and excited.  In Webster’s 1828 edition dictionary it carries the same basic idea.  However, compare that definition to those found in modern dictionary and the change is significant.

Words change in meaning.  Words like “retarded” to describe a person have been replaced with terms like “special needs” by those trying to soften the label.  But as a result, now saying “he’s ‘special’…” takes a whole new meaning and doesn’t imply greater or better.  Changing the labeling word has not removed the stigma associated with mental handicap.

Are Black Men Thugs?

The word “thug” is another word that has seemed to have evolved in meaning.  It once meant “ruffian” or a murderous criminal and yet lately it is often used for a much more specific group of people.  Thug seems the new favorite word to describe a young black person involved in a violent confrontation and that has raised the hackles of numerous social commentators who say it is a racist code word.

Richard Sherman, the ever so outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback, put it plainly when he suggested that the word “thug” is the new N-word. 

I do not go as far as some do, I do not believe it is a word used exclusively for young black men, and I do not believe all who use it intend it with a racial connotation.  I am doubtful President Obama or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, meant their usage of “thug” as racist and believe we should give all people the same benefit of doubt regardless of skin color.

That said, that doesn’t mean those who are describing “thug” as a new racist code word are totally wrong either.  I myself began to suspect something amiss with the word before it became a topic of widespread outrage and media hand wringing.  It was because of overzealous spam posts of conservative (white) friends that I began to wonder about the usage.

Will the Real Thug Please Stand Up!

A story, “INSTANT JUSTICE: Black Thug Tries to Bully ‘Little’ White Teen…BAD IDEA,” links a video showing a white teen mercilessly beating a black teen.  I can hardly see the justice in it.  Furthermore, if “thug” is just a general term for a violent person, why is the more violent of the two in the video only a “white teen” and not also a thug?  Hitting a dazed opponent seems thuggish behavior to me.

Another story, “High School Thug Bullies Classmate for ‘Talking White’ — Doesn’t End Well for Him,” shows one black teen harassing another and things turn violent.  Again race is the topic.  Again the one delivering the beating is the “classmate” and not labeled as a “thug” like the other guy.  It is a bit murkier because both involved are black.  But nevertheless you have “thug” versus “white” in the title and a curiously sympathetic accompanying article.

A third video, “NY Thug Picks Fight With Wrong Trucker, Gets Beating Of A Lifetime,” also starts after the fight has already began (removing context) and again the word “thug” is only used to describe the black participant.  Again the suggestion seems to be that the beating was a justified response.

Why is a young man described as “black thug” or “thug” and not just as a bully, harasser, instigator, etc?

I can’t read the minds of those who posted the videos.  But the framing of these stories does cause me to wonder about the intent in sharing them.  It would be as strange as a title, “Offended Young People Provoked by Thug Police,” to a story about the Baltimore rioters pummeling officers with rocks.  There would seem to be an intent to bias the reader at very least.

The (Thuggish) Hypocrisy on Both Sides…

Not every use of “thug” carries an extra racial overtone.  I believe it would not be fair to characterize it as a racist term or all those who use it as racists.  It is unfair to assume every person who uses a certain word has loaded it up the same as you do.

The word “racist” itself can be used in a prejudicial and unjust way.  The usage of the term “racist” to describe an offending white person is probably as damaging to them as any other contemptuous and derisive term.  Words like “privilege” and “redneck” are also questionable.  They are words used to categorize people and often unfairly.  Sure, many people use those terms as descriptive or even as terms of endearment, but the same is also true of “thug” and the N-word. 

In fact, the popularity of the word “thug” used to describe young black urbanites could have come in part to use of the word as a self-description: 

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Understandably is is different when a word is used as derogatory and not as a term of endearment.  But it should also not be a surprise when descriptions we use for ourselves are picked up in popular dialog and become a nucleus for stereotypes.

Making ‘Thug’ a Taboo Word Is NOT the Answer.

I am reminded of the wise words of W.E.B. DuBois in reply to Roland A. Barton in 1928 about the topic of names (please take the time to read the whole letter) and his solution:

“Your real work, my dear young man, does not lie with names. It is not a matter of changing them, losing them, or forgetting them. Names are nothing but little guideposts along the Way. The Way would be there and just as hard and just as long if there were no guideposts, but not quite as easily followed! Your real work as a Negro lies in two directions: First, to let the world know what there is fine and genuine about the Negro race. And secondly, to see that there is nothing about that race which is worth contempt; your contempt, my contempt; or the contempt of the wide, wide world.”

As an alternative to abolishing words (that will soon replaced by new words to fill the vacuum) and being offended at every turn: Be the solution.  The solution, of course, is to live outside of the labels used to box us in and beyond identities built around race.  The solution ultimately is for everyone to do unto others what they want others to do to them (Luke 6:31) and abandoning their right to retaliation.  Be what you want others to be.

Words come and go, so don’t let them define you!

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