Yesterday, I posted this picture on the internet:
Taken by my incredible Boston-based photog friend Lena Mirisola, CHECK. HER. OUT.
A little while after posting, I received a notification that a frequent guest director at my high school, & a theatre professor at Boston College, commented. His internet presence is always comical, and I prepared myself to hit the ‘like’ button & retort to a snarky, clever comment.
This is what he tossed into the mix:
A theatre professional, a teacher of young theatre artists at the high school and undergrad level, just used the word “Thug”.
Clearly it was in jest, perhaps I am being “too PC”.
It doesn’t feel like it, though.
Something inside of me twisted.
The origins of the word “thug” are undeniably racially charged.
The etymology of the word traces back to a Hindi word for “cheat” or “swindler”, and was brought to Western culture through literature describing the “Thugs of India”, a group of men in the 1800s who would rob and kill travellers. This Western literature was destructive. It identified these “Thugs”, a group highway bandits, as a murderous religious cult – the beginnings of its use for Westerners to negatively categorize Easterners.
Kim Wagner, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London described the Brits’ early use of thug:
“It allowed them to criminalize any kind of indigenous activity as being something that was inherently irrational and politically illegitimate, not different from the way it’s used today. You’re effectively describing them as having no legitimate grievances and just being hoodlums.”
Throughout the 20th century, this linguistic trend continued amongst white Americans. Incarceration numbers of POC rose, and the phrase “thug” was consistently attached to black and brown people – regardless of their behavior.
Sometime around Tupac Shakur’s iconic “THUG LIFE” stomach tat, American hip-hop culture adopted the phrase. The word was subversively infused with power, coolness, resilience.
John McWhorter, professor at Columbia University says in an interview with NPR:
“There is a tinge of affection. A thug in black people’s speech is somebody who is a ruffian but in being a ruffian is displaying a healthy sort of countercultural initiative, displaying a kind of resilience in the face of racism etc. Of course nobody puts it that way, but that’s the feeling.”
and more importantly,
“Black people saying thug is not like white people saying thug.”
Some attribute this celebration of the “thug narrative” to be dangerous. Journalist and former NY prosecutor Charles F. Coleman Jr says,
“The real danger is that these references support an association of Black with thug and thug with criminality (even where there may be none) which can prove to be a nightmare amidst a deeply flawed justice system where guilty until proven innocent is already an unfortunate reality for far too many people of color.”
In the wake of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, the word has increased in frequency from the mouths of white media/politicians, when describing members of the Black community responding to injustice. Even President Obama used the word. He referred to protesters who destroyed property in Baltimore as, “thugs who tore up the place”.
Immortalized in an public statement made by Seahawks Player Richard Sherman, it is becoming increasingly clear that “Thug” is becoming a new N-word. Like the N-word, it contains a duality – both claimed by the Black community, and used harmfully by the white oppressor to categorize and indict Black people.
Most dangerous of all, it is a socially acceptable phrase that is used to invalidate responses to the systematic violence and police brutality against the Black community.
Needless to say, this is not a word to be claimed by a 45 year old white Boston College professor.
So, besides the stupid rhyme – what was it about the photo that made him use that word?
I know what.
My facial expression is harsh, my clothes are baggy, I am in an ‘urban’ setting.
(Literally, Black men have been killed based on those three conditions alone.)
Did this man use the word with purposeful racist implications? Probably not.
This man shares my predominantly white hometown, where words like this one are thrown around carelessly and in jest. Boston College is surely no different.
In these places, there is no acknowledgement of the weight and implications that these words hold, and rarely repercussions for saying them.
All I can think is, of course he used the word.
Does that make his use of the word okay? Absolutely not.
I’m hung up on this part though- He is a theatre. educator. in 2016.
Right down the road from our Drama Lit conversations about these very words!!!
Aren’t we as artists supposed to be on the front lines of this thing?
With deep, multifaceted, empathetic understanding of the intricacies of the humans and violence and events around us?
Certainly this hang up is a symptom of my privilege – not unlike the “Postracial”-White-Liberal-Election-Result-OMG-I-Can’t-Believe-America-Is-Racist-Shock.
Black people have been telling us for decades: of course this is happening.
Of course a theatre educator used that word.
Of course theatre educators/makers around the country are using that word.
Presently, I am working on a response to this educator, be it public or private. It’s still scary to put my money where my mouth is.
We can think ourselves into a safe bubble, or we can look at ourselves in a mirror.
A few weeks ago, a classmate who I trust implicitly as a person, artist, and a ‘woke’ activist, used the word “ghetto” to describe a crude design choice in class. The room was momentarily silent in shocked response, but the conversation flowed forward, in what I perceive as a hasty effort to forgive and forget. There was no confrontation about the use of the word, perhaps to maintain the perceived cohesion in the room.
I’m still thinking about it.
Never get comfortable. Never let your friends, colleagues, fellow artists, get comfortable.
We must be better.