Many people want to pretend that we live in a post-racial society, but for many people of color, particularly African Americans, this is the furthest thing from the truth. While overt racism is shunned, more subtle forms have taken its place. One example of this is the use of language. It is now universally accepted that the “N-word” is a derogatory racial slur. Most people agree that the word is offensive and do not use it (at least not in public). However, other words that are meant to marginalize, offend and cast African Americans in a negative light have taken its place.
“Thug” is at the top of the list. The most common slur you hear thrown at young African-American men these days is thug. There is nothing overtly racial about the word thug, so people believe they can use it with impunity. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines thug as “a violent criminal” or as a “brutal ruffian or assassin.”
Yet, time and time again we see it hurled at African Americans, without a second thought, by people ranging from talking heads on cable news shows to commenters replying to articles in major newspapers. While occasionally it may be used to describe someone accused of a violent act, it is often used to describe any young, African-American man that does not conform 100 percent to so-called traditional mainstream culture. Even when it is used to describe someone who is accused or convicted of a crime, it still is usually used only when describing African Americans or other people of color.
The most recent example of using the word “thug” to demean an African-American man is in response to an emotional interview after the NFC Championship game by Seattle Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman. I have loved Richard Sherman for a while because of his intelligence and passion. The Richard Sherman I have seen in the past has been extremely intense on the field and intelligent and insightful in interviews. Despite his well-deserved reputation as a trash-talker, he usually comes across very well in interviews.
So while I was initially slightly taken aback by the interview (partially because I have seen how well he can communicate), I was disappointed, though sadly not surprised, at how people who had never heard of him before his comments were so quick to label this Stanford graduate and former high school salutatorian a thug because of one emotional interview. I was also amazed that his remarks were blown so widely out of proportion and were viewed so extensively outside of the sports media. All of a sudden, people who have never watched a football game in their lives were opining about Sherman’s actions and his character.
The one silver lining in this situation is that it may open dialogue about present-day racism. My friends and I have often used the phrase “thug is the new n-word” among each other, when expressing frustration with its overuse toward young, African Americans. I’m sure many other African Americans have had this same conversation with their friends and relatives long before the Richard Sherman incident. However, when Sherman expressed this sentiment in an interview a few days after the big media firestorm, many Americans heard this viewpoint for the first time. “[I]t’s an accepted way of calling someone the N-word nowadays,” Sherman said. “It’s like everybody else said the N-word and they said thug and they’re like, ‘that’s fine.’”
I get tired of hearing NBA players, who have never harmed anyone, referred to as thugs because they are African-American men with tattoos or brash, cocky athletes referred to as thugs simply for being African-American men who lack humility. While it would be nice to eliminate the word thug, if we don’t address the sentiment that allows Americans to see criminality in any action by an African-American man that they disagree with, then stigmatizing another word won’t matter. My hope is that people will learn from the Sherman incident and make a point not to be so quick to judge and disparage someone’s character, but I won’t hold my breath.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political and LGBT activist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms.