Monday, January 29, 2007

Word

WARNING: This post breaches racial issues. If you are easily offended or quick to anger and cannot handle an intelligent, honest discussion...you'd best navigate somewhere else.

Mike Vick’s (aka ‘Ron México’) latest faux pas has caused quite a ruckus. For those who don’t know, Mr. Vick was arrested in Miami when he refused to surrender his Aquafina water bottle to TSA officials at the airport. I could do a whole post about the stupidity of even trying to get on a plane with a water bottle, about refusing to give up a $1 bottle of water when you have a $130 million contract, about making a ruckus in general at an airport (does no one remember what happened to Greg in Meet the Parents?); that would be digressing from my original intent. Upon further inspection, this water bottle was no ordinary water bottle, but one that had a secret compartment.
The crux of this post is not the incident, but the banter that has ensued. Several people, including talking head Neal Boortz, have referred to Vick as a ‘thug’. It has ballooned now into a racial conversation, with many asserting that ‘thug’ is the new ‘N’ word and is racist. NBA star Joe Johnson of the Hawks said "I do think it's definitely a race-based stereotype. And I think it's one that, in our culture today, too many people are willing to accept and tolerate, even when they know it's wrong." (1)
This is why I’m irked.
Why is thug racist? Is it because it is more commonly used in reference to people of a certain color? I’ve gone and Googled the word thug; when the results are searched, the majority of the sites are about black people, particularly rap/hip-hop artists who have chosen to be known as ‘Thugs’ and associate themselves with the word.
Again I pose the question: Is thug racist because it is more commonly used in reference to people of a certain color? I say no. I submit that when a group of people begin to display behavior that a word describes, it is by no means the fault of the word. A word can’t make decisions; it cannot take on a persona; some would argue words are living, but they aren’t.
The original Thugs were bands of roving criminals in India who strangled and robbed travelers. Originally these gangs committed murder following precise religious rites to honor Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. I’m sure Hindi’s everywhere were up in arms at the negative connotations. (2)
In the 1920’s, thugs were overwhelmingly white. They were the enemies of prohibition – men who made a living breaking the law and getting rich off it, often killing, stealing and intimidating while simultaneously making light of the law and treating it as something to be mocked and scorned. No wonder Al Capone had such a surly disposition; it had nothing to do with the fact he was a murderer and an extortionist - he and his crew were the victim of a thoughtless stereotype.
In the early ‘90’s, Tupac Shakur brought the word thug into the world by glorifying it in his album Thug Life Vol. 1. Admittedly, I haven’t listened to much Tupac – something about the gratuitous violence, degradation of women and glorification of criminal behavior doesn’t appeal to me. But then again, I don’t embrace Thug Life. It was largely through his 'artists expressions' thug effectively made it into vogue and acceptable to engage in such behavior as associated with thugs. The 75 million albums he has sold world-wide show the support and acceptance his ideology has received. (3)
To say that the word thug has racial overtones is fine. It very well may. But does that mean that people should stop using the word? Was it born as a racial epithet? Such a philosophy is asinine and immature; it puts blame and responsibility on a word – an inanimate thing that cannot think, act or make choices. It is a weak attempt to remove accountability and place it somewhere else…the cancer eating away at the fabric of modern society. If a person or group of people begin to epitomize a word as Al Capone and his boys did in the early 20th century (overwhelmingly if not all white) or as rap artists and their constituents do in the early 21st century (overwhelmingly black), then the behavior placing those people under that umbrella needs to change. If it doesn't, those epitomizing the word have no right to demand change.
Don’t cop out and blame the word.