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Lecturer analyzes racist language and words

| Thursday, September 14, 2017

Luvell Anderson, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis, spoke about how those with different racial and social backgrounds experience and inhabit different realities. Anderson explored this topic through the analysis of the word “thug.”

Anderson said he is currently focusing his writings on understanding racial realities and how they differ from person to person.

“I’m developing a chapter in my writing on cross-cultural understandings,” he said. “It aims to characterize the issues that arise when we try to understand different racial realities.”

Anderson focused the lecture on derogatory words and slurs. Some derogatory words are not seen as such — particularly the word “thug,” even though it does carry racial connotations and has links to “blackness.”

“A lot of people might not recognize it as a slur, they might not recognize it as having racial connotations,” he said. “But, ‘thug’ itself does carry racist connotations, and that is due to a link between black criminality.”

Anderson said there are several examples of association between “thug” and “blackness.”

“The first example comes from the name of a blog called ‘Thug Kitchen,’” he said. “It was a recipe blog that offered simple recipes for vegan dishes. What was supposed to be unique about the blog was that it employed a stereotypical mock-black language. It was all good, until the identity of the bloggers was revealed: two white Californians. There are some forms of speech, that, depending on your identity, you don’t have license to use. So since the blog was heavily based on what was a mock black language, the humor was tied to the connection between thug and blackness. If you didn’t make that connection, you wouldn’t have understood the blog.”

Anderson said that he experienced this form of discrimination as a young crossing guard. Anderson said he and a friend both neglected to wear the designated orange crossing guard belts and were approached by an officer about it, although, the officer’s reactions to each of the boys was different.  

“[An officer] asked where our crossing guard belts were,” he said. “He told my friend to put his on and told me to go home and get mine. When I got back, the officer was gone, but my friend relayed to me this conversation he and the officer had. The officer said, ‘You really should be careful about hanging out with thugs like him.’ The only words that were exchanged between me and him were ‘I don’t have my belt,’ and ‘I’ll run home.’ Not a very substantial basis for making judgements about my criminal history. So what else could he have drawn on to make such a claim? There is one factor: the fact that I was black.”

Anderson said the association between “blackness” and crime has been around for centuries, citing a 1911 report from Chicago which reported that criminal activity was centered within minority communities.

“Whenever prostitutes, cadets and thugs were located among white people, they had to be removed … and were driven to the undesirable parts of the city — the so-called colored residential sections.” Anderson said, quoting the report.

“One thing this example tells us is the association between space and criminality,” he added. “So where did crime belong? According to this, crime didn’t belong in white areas, but was an active fit for the ‘colored’ areas. You can only make that sort of judgement if you’re already associating a link between blackness and criminality.”

Anderson said a way to combat stereotypical and racist connotations of the word “thug” is for black people to rethink the way they see themselves.

“In one constraint, the use of ‘thug’ is a restriction of one’s imagination, or what one can conceive of as one’s possible way of being in the world, or even the amount of respect one gives to oneself,” he said. “The idea of self determination and how black people think of themselves is key.”

Anderson said an example of this can be gleaned from football player Richard Sherman’s reaction to being labeled a thug on the Internet.

“Sherman expressed disappointment and said the following: ‘I was on the football field showing passion. I wasn’t committing any crimes and doing anything illegal.’ In essence, Sherman rejected the term because it did not apply,” he said. “This might seem like a sensible strategy, but I don’t think it’s the best one to adopt. Denying the linguistic application actually reinstated what was immediately objectionable. If Sherman readily rejects the label, it implies that he accepts the broader associations of the word. I think a better model of resistance might be linguistic appropriation.”

Anderson said the best representation of linguistic appropriation as an act of resistance is the ideology of Tupac Shakur. Anderson said Shakur was known for displaying “thug culture,” from tattoos to once describing the use of thug as “a new kind of black power.”

“His use of the word is intentional, under his own description,” Anderson said.

Anderson said an objection to this form of resistance is its suspected endorsement of violence.

“One objection to this approach is that people say it endorses criminality,” he said. “Jay Leno criticized Tupac for what he say as a glorification of violence and criminality. Tupac explicitly disavowed endorsing, or glorifying criminality and violence. He said in an interview, ‘Let me say for the record, I am not a gangster, never have been. I’m not the thief who grabs your purse. I’m not the guy who jacks your car. I’m not down with people who steal and hurt others. I’m just a brother who fights back. I’m not some closet psycho. I got a job. I’m an artist.’ I think this suggests that Tupac’s appropriation of thug life, is not a glorification of violence, but a fight back against internalization of racist characterizations.”

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