There are few words more insidious to me than the word "thug." It's a dog-whistle, a code word -- "nigger" in socially acceptable clothing. I say this because the term "thug" -- which was originally a Sanskrit word describing 19th century Indian assassins before it was broadened to describe any persons involved in criminal activity -- has since devolved into a pejorative -- a unilateral one, at that -- to vilify bodies of color, specifically black bodies.
The systematic iteration of the word "thug" in reference to black bodies is problematic because it perpetuates white supremacist ideologies about black people, namely that we are pathological, violent and lawless.
I've grown particularly weary of the phrase recently as the media have lampooned Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and running back Marshawn Lynch with it.
The duo presents an interesting case study as both have been labelled "thugs" for polar reasons.
Sherman has been criticized for his "arrogance," from his assertion that he's "the best corner in the game" to his refusal to entertain inane questions. Conversely, Lynch has been attacked for his ostensible unwillingness to speak to the press. Of note, media have tended to practice selective attention -- effectively ignoring friends' speculation that Lynch has a fear of public speaking and is wary of sharing his intimate thoughts and disadvantaged past with strangers -- and write Lynch off as stony and impersonal, even inhospitable.
Race shapes how we experience others and the reality is that these are racialized interpretations of Sherman and Lynch's comport.
Sherman is not a thug just because he trash-talks and owns his athletic prowess, and the fact that his behavior is read this way -- when Larry Bird was venerated for the same behavior -- reflects the ways in which our culture attempts to marginalize black bodies. While powerful white bodies are mythologized, black figures are forbidden from affirming their own power. We are expected to restrain ourselves and silently channel our gifts for the entertainment or service of white powers. We don't function as equals, but as assets.
A remnant of plantation politics, perhaps?
Lynch's case certainly reflects as much. The Oakland, Calif., native has been branded a "thug" -- not for his actual legal troubles (valid critiques, which he has acknowledged), but for giving "antagonizing" responses to the press and causing more than a few writers to throw tantrums. But here's the thing: Lynch isn't a thug because he refuses to jump when white reporters scream "Jump!" He's merely exercising agency -- something that black bodies are frequently denied or disparaged for because of the inherent, racialized power dynamics in this country.
For me, Lynch, Sherman and black men and women like them represent active resistance to these subtle microaggressions, which are ensconced in white supremacy. They do not pander to, coddle or center whiteness in their media interactions and it is their radical sense of agency that unnerves some (read: white) people. It unsettles their latent sense of entitlement, driving them to scream "thug" -- the same way that slave masters screamed "nigger." It's a reflexive response to black autonomy, marking those bodies as sites of terror.
Because what's scarier than a black person who recognizes their own humanity... right?