In defense of the word "thug"

Dear Hannah,

I've lived many places throughout my life, and this most recent one, situated in the South, happens to be the worst.  I say this because, on the right side of me and on the left, I'm neighbored by a racist and a redneck.  The latter parks his trucks on the grass, plays his Luke Bryan well past ten at night, and enjoys getting into fights with his girlfriend -- who I'm starting to think is his sister.  The racist, on the other hand, presents a different kind of problem.  He hates everything to do with any race except his own, which is unfortunate for me because I'm only half white.  He believes everyone other than his own race is against him.  The Asians have taken his child's place at college because they study harder.  The Mexicans have taken his job because they charge less and they work better.  And lastly, perhaps worst of all, he believes that whenever something bad happens between black people and white people in the news, the black people are innocent, and the white people are racists.  Oh -- I've forgotten to mention something.  This racist neighbor is black.

Perhaps most interesting to you here is that everything in this story, except for my being half-white, was completely made up.  I'm fortunate enough to have great white and black neighbors.  The point of the matter is that when I said one neighbor was a racist, nearly everyone assumes that he's white -- which wouldn't have been a point worth proving unless I'd seen an article on The Daily Kos trying to prove that the word thug is wrong to use because we always assume the thug is black.  If this is the case, The Daily Kos might prove their interest in equality by getting rid of the term racist too.

The fact that thug exists and it most usually means a black man of criminal behavior means nothing more than that some black men can be criminals.  Its existence might be insulting if no black man was ever a criminal.  It might be as insulting as redneck if no white man was ever an ignoramus and a bumpkin.  It might be as insulting as douchebag is to whites and Italians, if neither of us had an unfortunate trend in spiky-haired, sideways-hatted meatheads.  It might even be as insulting as slut is, had no woman ever promised to be faithful, and then been caught banging an entire football team.  I heard it once said that if you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps the loudest is the one you hit.  I don't know if the phrase fits so well here, because a lot of well-dressed white people are yelping about an perceived insult to all black people.  But certainly we can agree that if the shoe fits (or maybe we should say, the expensive pair of stolen sneakers), the last person who should be complaining about it is the actual thug.  The first complaint should be about his existence.

A nasty term signifies a nasty, existent thing -- which is the only reason why nasty words are so nasty.  The healthiest thing any of us can do, instead of pretending that we can get rid of a term and be rid of the thing, is to say that if a thug or a douchebag or a slut exists, that we refuse to either be one or raise our child to be one.  The heart of all equality and anti-racism is the belief that all of us, whatever our color, have a choice in everything we do; and that if we would only all wish at the bottom of our hearts to be good men, that everyone could be good -- and then we would all get along.  Recognizing that certain trends really do run in races (in this case, a horrible black crime rate and a style to go with it) isn't the cause of racism, but the first step toward removing it.  We can never fix a problem we refuse to admit exists, like we'll never put on deodorant unless we think we might stink.  Jesus Himself said that blessed are those who hunger, for they shall be filled.  Some Christians think this means Jesus only loves people without money or good looks or power.  The smarter Christians know that what Jesus means is, you can't get to the Kingdom of Heaven (or anywhere else) unless you're uneasy being where you are.  We can only become informed if we first admit our ignorance.  We can only go on a diet if we first admit our fatness.  We can only become good fathers, neighbors, employees, and citizens, when we're sick of being the thugs.

That thug may be thrown at the wrong person, like any other insult, is a testament to the fact that some people aren't smart or moral enough to use it correctly; not a rightful assault upon the term's existence.  For the term, however you look at it, is a sign of fear; and until people are ever completely unafraid of being raped, robbed, murdered, or conned, we'll always have an idea about the people we believe are most likely to rape, rob, murder, or con us. The best among us know that it's not only impossible to completely disregard our loves and fears, but in speech a fundamental human right to express them -- especially justly. 

If we get rid of one ugly word, there will soon be another one for it; and if there is no "offensive" word, there will be innocent words strung together to make an offensive idea.  The challenge to blacks is to fight every thug like their lives depended upon it -- and their lives do, because the definition of a bad neighborhood is a place where not bad, but good people suffer, whether from skittish police or criminal neighbors.  The challenge to whites is to refrain from using such an ugly, offensive term unless they've encountered ugly, offensive people.  People love to complain about police brutality, especially toward blacks.  But nobody with any common sense suggests that the police should be equally unarmed and defenseless as the rest of us.  We simply want them to use their guns the right way.  We should think the same way about our words.

Your father,


  1. Funny, but all these years I've never thought of "THUG" as connoting ANY race. I always took it to mean and unrepentant violent criminal. Suddenly, out of the blue... What did I miss?


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