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Why the word thug doesn’t work

Trigger alert: This article ran two years ago. If you’re still talking about it, then it must have worked in some sense of the word.

We are excited to introduce a new CHPN contributor, CasSandra.

Hello! I’m CasSandra and I’ve lived in Richmond, VA for 8 years. I initially came here for college but stayed for love. Richmond is an incredible city in so many ways! My passions are social justice and community healing. One of the ways I’m excited to express that is through pieces I will write for CHPN regarding culture, community, and justice. I am so excited to share with you what I think is so great about Church Hill and some of the ways I think we can honor that greatness.


I want to talk today about the power at play in the word “thug”. I know that it is a word some people in our neighborhood use to describe people who break the law, or people who frustrate them, or Black people in general. According to an article Megan Garber wrote for the Atlantic, the word “thug” originated in India as a label for professional brutal thieves and assassins. Garber describes a group, befriending a traveler along the road, and betraying that traveler’s trust by killing and robbing the traveler. Garber’s description includes a significant amount of power in:
1. The intentionality of gaining the victim’s trust before attacking them and,
2. The backing of the professionals by “customs officers, village officials, and native police”.

That power which was held by those described as thugs in India when the word started is not held by the people who are labeled as thugs in Church Hill. I think that now, when we use the word thug, it is to assign to a person the same level of malice and power as the word originally carried. But we know that sometimes people break the law because they feel that they have no power. And rather than being backed by officials and police, those folks may feel targeted by those same institutions.

My intention is not to say that you don’t deserve to feel your frustration or to want the things that frustrate you to stop happening. My intention is to say that it is important that you see the people who are frustrating you as being as human as you are. I think that when we use words like “thug” we paint a very different picture of the power dynamics at play. We assume that the person we are describing does what they’ve done in order to exert their power over us. We forget the potential impact of feeling powerless and we use our own power to write them off instead of humanizing or empathizing with them.

You may have noticed when people use the term thugs, it becomes easier to forget their humanity. We start to use extermination concepts like, “clear them out”, or “get rid of them,” or “they’re a menace.” We forget we are talking about other people like ourselves. I would encourage us to find new words to express our frustrations with the people around us. This way we can see more clearly what is actually happening, who has power, and make sure we wield our own in ways that maintain the humanity of those around us.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not represent the views, or polices of the ChildSavers organization.


The U.....nion Hill 06/26/2018 at 12:32 PM

No, the thugs forget our humanity when they hold us up at gun point or destroy/take the possessions we worked hard to acquire.

Rachel 06/26/2018 at 12:56 PM

Hey CasSandra,

I appreciate your words and bravery in expressing both your knowledge and feeling. Having worked in homeless shelters, drop-out recovery programs, and in jails, I’m always saddened when folks use “othering” language like this. At one level it shows ignorance (and perhaps racism), but on another level – this human one that you’re getting at – it just reveals a lack of empathy that can only come with exposure.

A few weeks ago a young man ran through my back yard, jumped over my deck, and hid under my neighbor’s back deck. The cops were soon there (they had been following him) and detained him out front. I went out and saw him – he was maybe 15. I offered him water and asked if he was ok. Later when he was released (he hadn’t committed any crime – just was with a crew that was called on for being “suspicious” #permitpatty #bbqbecky), my next door neighbor let him walk back through his house to retrieve some money he had dropped in the back yard. This is what living in community should look like.

I thought about what this young man and I have in common – I once hid from the cops (underage drinking in the cornfields of Michigan anyone?!). And what we don’t have in common: I am much less likely to take a bullet in my back for this behavior simply because of the color of my skin.

Terrapin Marquis 06/26/2018 at 12:57 PM

Don’t let Fox News redefine Thug to have racial overtones. Just don’t play into it. Thug should be non-racialized. It is a great word to describe heavies, strike breakers, mob soldiers, street criminals of all races. Vive le Mot Thug!

K 06/26/2018 at 1:59 PM

What did I just read ? Does it matter what we call someone ? I have never associated Thug with a race. Doesn’t matter thug / hoodlum / thief .. just stop stealing my damn packages and trying to break into my car.

MP 06/26/2018 at 2:48 PM

“We forget we are talking about other people like ourselves.”

Nope – people who break into cars or mug people are NOTHING like me. No way. Yes, they are people, but so completely different than the majority of us law-abiding, community loving people (of all colors and income-levels). It’s ok to call out people who are behaving that badly, it’s a very healthy part of society. The majority of us decide what is acceptable behavior (aka not threatening to kill us or stealing our property) and it’s enforced. I most definitely want to “clear them out” and “get rid of them”. They made their choices, there were always other options than what they did. To act otherwise is to actually dehumanize them, to say they had no agency over their actions.

Rachel 06/26/2018 at 2:50 PM

Google image: “thug.” Then google image: “professional.” These things are ingrained. It has everything to do with race.

EastEnder 06/26/2018 at 2:53 PM


What did I just read? I’m a black professional who is a long time Church Hill resident. I go to CHPN to read about news, happening, and updates in the community. This post reads as an overly simple political correct public service announcement. I’m all about critical language discourse analysis but only if it yields to greater understandings and discussions about actual community issues. The author notes “That power which was held by those described as thugs in India when the word started is not held by the people who are labeled as thugs in Church Hill.” Is there an uptick in the word “thug” being used by Church Hill residents? If so, who are those residents? In my small corner of the world, the folks who use that word repeatedly and proudly use it as an identity marker and “thuglife” as a way they walk in the world. Does CasSandra suggest that they use this word because these people probably “…feel that they have no power?” I would not be that presumptuous.

What I have seen is an uptick in property crimes, drug dealings at known drug houses, and shootings too close to my family and loved ones. I’m more concerned about people who have been effected by these issues, and how their use of the word “thug” and oftentimes, the criminals themselves, reveal obvious and real critical issues that need to be addressed.

We can do better CHPN.

Kay 06/26/2018 at 5:32 PM

The politically correct nature of this post is EXACTLY what’s wrong with our culture. A thug is a thug is a thug! All of this liberal BS is what’s perpetuating the crime we’re seeing…and people are not being held accountable for their poor choices/behavior. Oh, I forgot, it’s someone else’s fault that I can’t get ahead…someone’s holding me down. The world owes me something. Get over it- nobody OWES you anything! The silent majority is sick of thug behavior and will call you out when needed…if you’re a thug and demonstrate thug behavior- you’re going to be considered a thug.

Let the radical inclusionists, ever so tolerant, and preachers for diversity weigh in…until a thug victimizes them or their family!

longjohnsteven 06/26/2018 at 5:50 PM

Yeah the projects and southside are filled with thugs. How about you write on the two kids who were killed by stray bullets last year, or the grandma in northside who was killed by a stray bullet while in her own home.

longjohnsteven 06/26/2018 at 5:52 PM

Question… how do you feel about the rapper Young Thug?

Nick Blankenship 06/26/2018 at 5:54 PM

This is why liberals lose elections. I am a Democrat have always been and want to see the party so well. It’s this type of thing though that puts people off and sends them to the dark side.

jean Mcdaniel 06/26/2018 at 6:24 PM

I commented recently that a thug is a thug is a thug. I have never known this word to be associated or to indicate a race of any kind!

#5 MP makes sense
#7 east ender makes sense.

We need to get over our politically correct selves!

K 06/26/2018 at 8:41 PM

^^^ Agree 100%

Gustavo Adolfo 06/26/2018 at 9:12 PM

That’s not quite correct man. We’ve had a number of car theft related articles on the site, Alan. We’re allowing members of our community to have a voice, if this triggers you, then that’s your deal. ‘thug’ is a polite way to say the N-word for some folks on social media and perhaps we could’ve been more clear. But to say we’re not committed to featuring crime news is not fair and reductive.

Church Hill People's News 06/26/2018 at 9:57 PM

Folks, let’s remember to keep our cool in the comments. It’s just one think piece by a new writer. We’re going to have more opportunities to continue thought-provoking opinion pieces while we talk about the best new restaurants, the amazing work by the volunteers in our area, the harsh reality of crime due to gentrification and other issues (Edit- trigger alert- we’re NOT arguing that all crime is due to gentrification, please take your blinders off for a second). You are ALL invited to write for CHPN and this initiative will make more sense once we revamp the website. Thanks all for your opinions and feedback.

Gustavo 06/26/2018 at 10:03 PM

Folks, this is all great discussion and many of your comments are valid responses. I think what makes this all a little jarring is that CHPN is a news organization where all of the articles feel like features, do they not? They’re all on the front page, they’re the first thing you see and they’re not catalogued as opinion pieces- just as you would see in bigger websites.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s ok to disagree and it’s exciting and daunting and scary to discuss social issues on our community site. One of the exciting things we’re doing this year is revamping the site- so if you’re interested in joining us for alpha and beta testing- please email us at YOUR contribution will make this a place where we can have different sections so that all types of articles and voices can be featured. Make sense? Hang in there as we get our bearings and thank you always for reading!

MJR 06/26/2018 at 10:40 PM

Calling someone a thug because of the loud music they are listening to or because their pants are falling off their but is evident of prejudice. But when people read on CHPN about 4 individuals trying to kick in the back door of a home with intent to rob it I don’t see how it is out of bounds to throw a label like thug at those perpetrators. That is serious (not petty) criminal behavior. So is mugging by gunpoint as someone else mentioned.

Katherine Jester 06/27/2018 at 6:30 AM

Since when is ChildSavers “a declining entity”? I don’t understand this characterization. May you please clarify?

Katherine Jester 06/27/2018 at 6:34 AM

I am not aware of anyone in this neighborhood or on social media referring to the African American race in general as thugs, and so I find this thesis invalid. But I will say this: when thugs stop wearing the word like a badge of honor (thuglife) maybe the stereotype will change.

Dubois2 06/27/2018 at 7:05 AM

Yeah….so CHPN…. tuning out the rest of this for a hot second… you imply in passing that the crime you cover is largely caused by gentrification. Please look back at your post and take a breath before arguing that you didn’t. Cuz you did:)

I wanted to take issue with you about that.

Having seen it before during and after gentrification, crime can be complicated. But the lions share—drug addiction and dealing and all the dirt that comes with it — that was here before. It’s sad and it’s true. It’s a generational problem in many families, like addiction were a jacked inheritance.

People like y’all radical inclusionists are quick to deny that impoverished black folk make choices; I’ve gotta call shame on that. Everybody makes choices, and everybody has their own problems, and it’s not for you, even if the truth burns our tongues, to talk like the choices a person makes to break the law dont belong to them.

Gustavo 06/27/2018 at 8:06 AM

Hi Dubois, thanks for reading! Good points. I’d like to think we’re mostly neutral and the statement you refer to (one short sentence does not equal an ‘argument’) is perhaps a misstatement. Erring is human, is it not? Btw, radical inclusionists is a new one- never been called that before.

Dubois2 06/27/2018 at 7:15 AM

And to anyone who is using the word thug to describe black and brown people on the random, there’s a word for you as well. It’s called racist:)

J 06/27/2018 at 7:42 AM

6: (Rachel) I looked up “thug” and “professional” on google as someone mentioned. All the images for thug are of Young Thug and a bunch of random pictures of people (all races) sporting the “thug life” saying. Google “professional” and you’ll see many business persons of different races, which is fantastic.

Johnathan 06/27/2018 at 8:57 AM

I hope that part of the new revamp of the website will allow the posting of conservative comments. It has been my experience that conservative commentary is not routinely posted for whatever reason.

Though it may be difficult for this forum and the community at large to accept, not all of us are progressives.


L 06/27/2018 at 9:41 AM

To the extent that the word “thug” is being used as a racially coded word, asking racist people not to use it won’t accomplish anything. Such people will either ignore your request or deploy another word for the same purpose.

Furthermore, requesting people not use this word isn’t really helpful because it has too many different subtexts and associations for it be considered a racist word. I think that the number of people who use the word “thug” and have no racist intent that you will offend through your efforts to “blacklist” the word will exceed the number of people you somehow help or avoid offending.

So, uhhmmmm…. good luck with all that…

K 06/27/2018 at 10:46 AM

I saw the idea of restructuring this site. That is a great idea. I’d prefer to see local news and events on the front page and have a separate page for OP/ED. Minus the #maga hashtag (barf) #29 calls a point where conservative view points should be shared equally. We are a diverse community and I think it is important to make sure that is reflected in the news reporting.

Eric S. Huffstutler 06/27/2018 at 12:41 PM

Gustavo and CHPN… I like the idea of diversifying the group by expanding on the usual “lost dog, new restaurant, storm last night pictures” posts. Church Hill is much more. It is made up of “humans”, all of whom have different ideas, views, and beliefs. By exposing them, may help us congeal as a better community, understanding how we think and so… never back down.

Let me put my .02¢ in…

To me, the word “Thug” is more about an attitude rather than pigeonholing someone by color or as a criminal. I have never taken the word any other way. A criminal is a criminal and I think the word thug has been misused by racists. It is sort of like what I see on this side of the looking glass when whites call some whites “Wannabes”. That is a white person trying to act, dress, and talk like a black person but, it doesn’t change their skin color. It doesn’t make them black, no more than the word thug makes a person a criminal (or black).

*** There are exceptions and some criminals have adopted the word thug but that is due to their own ignorance. ***

Eric S. Huffstutler 06/27/2018 at 1:35 PM

And before I get blasted by some dissecting posts, my comment (… “Wannabes”. That is a white person trying to act, dress, and talk like a black person.) is by no way racist. I am not attempting to place a delineation between how white and black people act, dress, or talk. But one can not deny that there are complete sections of town, through self-segregation, where people dress a certain way, have certain attitudes, and talk in a way that borders on ghetto slang… and they do not even attempt to try and talk proper English. I am sure this is NOT taught in school but a form of self-degradation most likely due to peer pressure or again, self-segregation passed on and/or the lack of wanting to try and do better for whatever reason? I am hoping it is not because people of color don’t want to be too “white” but we can draw certain conclusions (and sure many are wrong) and it is this sort of thing that causes fear and division. Just like using the word thug. And, exactly why we need open dialogue like this on CHPN.

Emily Em 06/27/2018 at 8:11 PM

I am so glad to see the problematic usage of the term thug being discussed! While others have pointed out it is also used in different ways with a more positive connotation; I’d argue that is ultimately a counter-cultural response of those most negatively affected by its predominate usage as a means of othering, racial coding, and dog whistling in our society. Similar to the use of the N word. There’s no way in hell I’d ever use either word and truly believe they’re not far from each other. I look forward to reading more opinions and thought pieces, especially on social justice and community healing <3

Disappointed Liberal 06/27/2018 at 8:14 PM

What happened to CHPN? This should be about community news, not SJW ramblings.

Jen 06/28/2018 at 10:51 AM

Thanks so much for posting this CHPN! Judging by the comments, I think a lot of people have some work to do on internalized racism. I try to stay away from this site and NextDoor in particular because it seems like a lot of people in the Church Hill prefer to criminalize the people whose neighborhood has changed dramatically in the past ten- twenty years. It’s painful to see, but commentary like this will hopefully help people question their motivations.

MP 06/28/2018 at 12:50 PM

Um Jen, no one who moved here a few years ago is “criminalizing” people who mug others or steal from cars. They ARE criminals. They chose to do that themselves. They have agency to not steal and hurt others.

Will Hall 06/28/2018 at 3:32 PM

I’m not going to say what I really want to say regarding this topic, but please don’t use the word thug in a sterotypical way, meaning, let’s not use this word to refer to young black males. I’m a black male, about to turn 40 soon, but when I was younger, I remember how this word was tagged,or just automatically used to describe younger black males, because younger black males appear intimidating to some white people-lets keep it real! Now, the word thug can be used to describe anyone, regardless of race. Everyone thinks that black males in the projects are the only people selling drugs. I live in eastview, right beside Whitcomb court, and every day I see different White males and women come into my neighborhood selling and buying drugs. I see this everyday, in front of my house. I find this interesting, because the police know about this and this has been going on for years, but the media and news outlets like this are quick to report activity from younger black males. There are alot of white men who come into my neighborhood selling drugs. I know this for a fact. Isn’t that thug behavior? But when a black man does it, he’s a thug? Thats why so many young black males are killed by the police because of this biased label thats automatically attached to them

Liz 06/28/2018 at 3:36 PM

Criminal – one who has committed a crime (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Stop making excuses for criminals. Provide resources for those who want help, yes, but stop making excuses.

Rachel Davis 06/28/2018 at 6:50 PM

Come on CHPN. This is utterly ridiculous. A thug is a criminal. Period.

Emily Em 06/29/2018 at 11:28 AM

I think Liz’s reminder of the definition of criminal hits the nail on the head. Criminal is the most precise and accurate word for someone who commits a crime folks! Not thug, which is much less precise terminology and has many more complex connotations in our society.

bill 06/29/2018 at 4:26 PM

the word/thought police have finally arrived

Anita 06/30/2018 at 8:42 AM

“Thug” is a good descriptive word – whether it is used for a white person or a black person who deserves it. It conveys much more than the word “criminal” and should be used by radical inclusionists and neocons alike without hesitation whenever its use is appropriate. Where I grew up (Philadelphia) it was used almost exclusively to describe those in the Mafia. I vote for a separate division or website for social issues.

derk p 07/01/2018 at 11:47 AM

whenever i hear someone’s hobbies include “social justice” i automatically assume theyre a whackadoo and i havent been proven wrong yet. im willing to bet this person has never had anything forcibly removed from her person by a “thug”.

bill 07/01/2018 at 12:59 PM

yes 43 I agree. move the social issues somewhere else

Eric S. Huffstutler 07/01/2018 at 2:13 PM

Church Hill PEOPLE NEWS, should include social issues as well. Again, a “community” is more than restaurants and lost dog posts. A community also involves thoughts, ideas, and social issues. Why sweep them under the rug when they exist in front of our eyes and experience them daily? Casting a blind eye or saying it doesn’t belong because it makes you feel uncomfortable and then hide under a rock, is why we fail as diverse neighbors and a neighborhood.

If trying to justify the use of a single word causes this much commotion… there is a disconnect and problems somewhere.

Mary Anne Conmy 07/01/2018 at 7:23 PM

Yay! You are exactly what CHPN needs! Welcome, CasSandra! I clock forward to reading your posts!

Mary Anne Conmy 07/01/2018 at 7:34 PM

BTW, I think this is a great piece. For the voices of dissent- I think the bigger point is to call attention to what leads people to commit crimes and as some would consider a “thug”. Without understanding why people resort to criminal behaivor and labeling people who behave differently than you as “thugs” you are just complaining and judging.

EastEnder 07/02/2018 at 1:04 PM

@48, the reasons as to why people commit crimes can be complex and nuanced. I don’t purport to have the skills or knowledge to critically engage the recesses of the criminal mind. If that makes me a complainer or judgmental, I’ll accept those labels. Also, if, as a victim of crime, who has called criminals “thugs,” I’m complaining and judging, I’ll accept those labels.

When CHPN publishes this kind of flimsy public service announcement-like post to engage a community that is already fraught with tremendous challenges, I cringe.

I support CHPN’s discussion of social issues. I support CHPN’s discussion of social issues that are embedded in the Church Hill community fabric in an in depth manner. I think what’s very problematic about this post is that it’s untethered. It’s not anchored to anything substantive or concrete yet it makes an argument for inclusivity and tolerance of criminal behavior and criminal identity.

It also implies a subtle racial logic to the use of the word thug wherein all those who use the word are white and all “thugs” are black. This kind of logic is dangerous and pernicious. Especially, as some commentators have noted, not all “thugs” are black, and not all those who use the word, in both a positive and negative manner, myself included, are white.

bill 07/02/2018 at 2:16 PM

but this posting IS tethered to word/thought policing. the posting implies that if you use/think of the word “thug” that you are racist. and to weave the community fabric properly that word must be cut out. the poster in fact is a thug, using a fake narrative to promote a social justice and a community healing.

Mary Anne Conmy 07/02/2018 at 2:57 PM

49 .49 – I totally agree with you! I’m just suggesting we need to all go a bit deeper than just labeling someone as a “thug” and leaving it at that.

Eric S. Huffstutler 07/02/2018 at 7:12 PM

CasSandra, since we now have over 50 responses of varying degrees of interpretation, can you chime in with how you see what is being said?

True, by “definition”, a THUG is a violent criminal. People are quick to label it to a black person but how about the black perspective?

Tupac (2-Pac) defined a thug as: “…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.” Also, “No, it doesn’t mean you have to be a gangsta or promote violence. Being a Thug is about standing up for yourself, standing up for what’s right, and promoting self-empowerment.”

Some see a thug as nothing but a criminal while I still see it as an attitude. A thief is a thief, a murderer is a murderer, a robber is a robber, and a criminal is a criminal. When and why was the word “thug” associated with only criminal activity?

Here is Tupac’s philosophy about being a Thug:

This is a link to a 2001 thesis about “Thug Life” and gives a different perspective.

Comments are closed.