by Maisha Z. Johnson
In response to the media coverage of the Baltimore uprising, some are asking if “thug” is “the new n-word.” I sure hope it’s not.
Declaring “thug” the new n-word might just encourage some white people to say it more. I’ll cringe when they gleefully sing along to songs with the word in the lyrics. I might get into a debate about it with one of them, as they find about 300 ways to say the word in the process of defending their right to use it before I walk away. I’ll see it cited as an example of “censorship against white people” who suddenly want nothing more than to feel “thug” leap from their mouths.
Having two n-words means twice the headaches.
The sentiment behind the conversation about the word “thug,” however, is something everybody should pay attention to – especially those of us who are criminalized. Attitudes that villainize people of color, people defying gender norms, and poor people are the same ones that target us for discrimination, violence, and incarceration. And they’re the same attitudes that can add racist undertones to the word “thug.”
In this moment, the word is being used in the media to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement – a movement in which we are on the front lines, fighting for our lives. Referring to the Baltimore uprising sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, everyone from journalists to the mayor to the President used the word. And a teenager who damaged a police car during the Baltimore protests – whose photograph is displayed to show an example of these so-called “thugs” – is being punished more severely than most police officers who have killed people of color.
This isn’t the first time the word has come up following cases of police brutality – victims of police violence have been described as thugs, too.
There’s an atrocious message beneath these descriptions, saying that people more likely to fall victim to law enforcement’s deadly force are criminals at fault for our own murders. I can understand the urge to eliminate the use of the word if it’s perpetuating that message – so will banning it get to the root of the problem?
I have to be honest: part of the reason I don’t want “thug” to be considered the new n-word is because I don’t want racist people to take away my power to use it, like they have with the n-word. Just like the n-word, “thug” takes on different meanings depending on if it’s hurled at us by white people or used by us, about ourselves. When we say “thug” in the tradition of Tupac Shakur’s T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., we’re talking about someone who faces impossible obstacles and doesn’t take shit from anyone. There’s strength in the word. There’s pride in surviving in a way the media tells us we should be ashamed of.
I’m so sensitive about the n-word’s connotations with white people that I hardly utter it even when they’re not around (look, I can’t even write it out now. Are the white folks looking? I’m afraid they might find a reason to quote this aloud if they are).
But censoring myself alone isn’t doing anything to address the systematic racism that makes the n-word so vile from white people. Doing nothing more than avoiding the word misses the point, and even worse, it plays into the respectability politics of the ridiculous claim that it’s Black people’s responsibility to stop saying the n-word to eliminate racism against us.
So instead of falling into the same mistakes with the word “thug,” I’d prefer to address why language matters as a vehicle for anti-Black racism. If I don’t, I might make the error of thinking that eliminating the word means eliminating the harm behind it.
Let’s face this facet of white supremacy, instead of letting a word distract us from it.
Here’s the thing: language helps anti-Black racism become more pervasive, providing coded words in the place of what we’d think of as overtly racist epithets. The word “angry” is simply a description of emotion, but, often, when white people respond to my experiences of racism with “Why are you so angry?” they’re doing more than describing an emotion. They’re using the stereotype of the angry Black woman to try and silence me. The word’s true meaning depends on who’s saying it and of whom it’s being said.
Language can also support systems of oppression through myths and misconcpetions. Lawmakers say that the War on Drugs locks up “criminals” and that stop and frisk practices locate “suspects,” but we all know that such laws violently target poor Black and Latino people who, overwhelmingly, aren’t perpetrating any crime.
We know exactly what’s happening when the language of white supremacy tries to degrade us. If they can’t say the n-word, they’ll say “thug,” and if not that, they’ll find something else. The absence of a word doesn’t mean racism has gone away.
As we recognize how words hurt us and push back against them, we can’t just stop at removing the words from white people’s vocabulary. We also have to call out and fight the efforts to erase us and demonize us through language and more. The word is only the beginning – we need to take down the whole racist system it supports.
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Maisha Z. Johnson is a healer, a troublemaker, and author of two poetry chapbooks, Split Ears and Uprooted. She breathes her Trinidadian roots and experiences as a queer black woman and survivor of violence into her art, working to amplify the voices of those often silenced. She blogs at www.maishazjohnson.com.