What do we mean when we call someone a thug? If you google it, you find the meaning of this word is all over the place these days.
The urban dictionary says:
As Tupac defined it, a thug is someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them. That person is a thug and the life they are living is the thug life. A thug is NOT a gangster. Look up gangster and gangsta. Not even CLOSE, my friend.
“That boy ain’t a gangsta, fo’sho’. Look at how he walks, he’s a thug… That’s the saddest face I’ve seen in all my life as a teen.”
Historically the word “thug” has been used to mean people who gang up and beat up others. It originates in India – a group of robbers who attacked people, beating them up and killing them in the name of Kali, the defeater of demons. Did these people think the people they attacked were demons or is this just another of the many examples of people taking the name of some god or goddess or religion and twisting it to suit their own personal needs? (I’m tempted to segue into research about these original “thugs”, but I’ll refrain and bring the discussion back to today!)
Until recently I associated this term with fascism. The historically earliest use of the term that I remember reading about was when “thugs” hired by companies attacked labor organizers. In some historical accounts the Pinkertons and other hired militias were referred to as “thugs”.
Before World War II there were “fascist thugs” who attacked labor organizers, Jews, and others in Italy and in Germany.
Even today the words “anti-union thug” can be found in articles on the internet although they are talking about a metaphoric “beating”, rather than a physical one.
But mostly today I see the word used by white people on elists and comment sections as a code word for “black or brown man” (sometimes women, too). I guess these people think they can claim not to be racist because they never identified the people they’re talking about as black or brown – even though it’s clear to everyone.
I do understand what Tupac was talking about in the quote above. I see young black men in my neighborhood looking lost. I had a conversation with a young black man in a class I was taking who said a third of his high school classmates were dead. Where are these young men to find grounding when we both haven’t prepared them for adult life in our society, and even when they are prepared, there are no jobs for them – where those hiring take one look at them and turn them down because they’re black.
But I have a hard time referring to these young men as “thugs”, even using Tupac’s definition. I want us to stop using this word and start seeing each person in front of us as a complex human being whose life might be awash with fear, with violence, neglect, and the low self-esteem that comes from being immersed in the values of a racist society.
Please, no more name calling!