Shawn Ginwright

author, professor, activist

Thugs, Ghetto and other nice ways to say N****

It feels like black urban communities besieged by police violence somehow have to find the “appropriate” way to funnel rage. To make matters worse, when high-ranking black officials use the term “thugs” to describe the young protesting residents of Baltimore, it reveals a dirty truth about our perceptions of young black people.

Last Thursday, I picked up my daughter from school. She is tall for 14, and towers over most of her friends. Full of energy, she jumped in the front seat and without my prompting exclaimed, “lots of stuff happened today dad”.

A few of her friends, all who are African American, and been selected to help promote a fashion show and met with the show’s producer. He explained to them that they needed to make signs for the show to post around town. She explained that as he was describing how to make the posters, he stopped and commented;

“Make sure the posters aren’t ghetto”!

She explained that she was surprised, offended, and taken aback by his comments.

“Dad, I said to him, ‘Mr. Wilson don’t you think that is a poor word choice?’ What are you really trying to say to us?”

 Yes, I was proud of her for recognizing the underlying racial bias in his “poor word choice”, and putting the racial transgression back in his lap. The thing is however, Mr. Wilson, a white progressive, well-meaning volunteer at the school was unaware of his own deeply held racial bias.  

The term thug, and ghetto are simply symbols of deeply held notions of black people and the neighborhoods in which we live. Whites are often unaware of the racial bias they hold, and when confronted with their bias, they fight to hold on to their deeply held beliefs. In some cases, even middle class blacks hold these views about lower income black communities. It’s not uncommon to hear black young people say, “that is so ghetto” referring to values and behaviors that supposedly are unique, and particular to urban, African American low-income neighborhoods.

 I suspect, that millions of Americans who are watching the events unfold in Baltimore can conclude that the civil unrest confirms what they had suspected all along about Black young people- which is that they are ghetto, and pose a threat to civic order, and a massive military force is necessary to control their rage.

I wonder if Mr. Wilson thinks the young people in Baltimore are ghetto- like my daughter and her friends? I wonder if Mr. Wilson would consider my 17-year old son, a thug because he wears his pants below his waist, and usually wears a hoodie?

It’s time we interrogate the language we use to describe American citizens, and non-citizens. Just like the term “chick”, “babe”, or “girl” is inappropriate to describe women, and derogatory terms like “sissy”, “sweet”, and “fag” are offensive and unacceptable, terms like ghetto and thug are equally offensive in describing young African Americans.

In America, we use terms that make it easy for us to separate the good Americans (citizens), from the bad ones (illegal aliens). We need clear, rigid boundaries so that we can comfortably place our children, our communities, and ourselves squarely on the good side of the American line. 

The truth is that the boundaries we hold in our minds are thin, and fragile, particularly when it comes to citizens advocating for change. What some people consider a riot- unjustified, and illegitimate protest, others see as rebellion- justified, legitimate and organized. We should be wary about the rigid distinctions between civil disobedience, and violence. The student sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, despite their non-violent actions, often incited violence and harmed people, not just private property. Communities, who have little access to economic or political power often turn to unorthodox, and seemingly chaotic means to be heard.

Lets be clear, I don’t sanction violence, destruction and pillaging as a means for social change, but we should be mindful that young people’s political motivations don’t come in pretty packages wrapped in a bow. Sometimes we are quick to label looting, and burning as unjustified violence, when in fact these are desperate calls for hope.

The terms thug, and ghetto only serve the misguided purpose of determining what protest should look like for those of us who don’t live in neighborhoods besieged by violent police. These words stigmatize communities, and the young people who live there.

The jubilant response in Baltimore, to Maryland state prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s charging the six officers involved with Freddie Gray’s death are a sign of hope that perhaps justice is on the horizon. Her courageous act of justice nurtured a sense of hope among young people like water for a thirsty garden.

 Lets take my daughter’s brilliant wisdom and ask ourselves, is there a better “word choice” to describe young people who seek answers? Perhaps the terms “angry citizens”, or even “rebellious youth” send a message that honors how black young people have always pushed, elbowed and shoved their way into democracy, and in doing so they have made our country better.


Shawn Ginwright is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Education at San Francisco State University, and the author of Black Youth Rising, Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America.


Copyright Shawn Ginwright All rights reserved.