Migrants and Thugs

Baltimore poet Clarinda Harris at the launch of the 2013 Little Patuxent Review Music issue in Columbia, Maryland. (Photo: Linda Joy Burke)

One thing that Clarinda and I have a tendency to do is obsess about words. Understandable, you might say, since both write: one writes poetry, the other prose. Or, if you know us a bit better, you might say that, even for writers, we take it too far. Last autumn—or was it last fall?—we had a long discussion about how spelling could change the way that others perceive a description of, say, an overcast day. Revisiting that recently, Clarinda said, “And yeah, not only is ‘grey’ brownish and ‘gray’ bluish to me, but I have asked generations of writing students about the two spellings, and 100 percent have had a strong opinion.” So if such a neutral word can ignite such fervent feelings, then maybe everyone should obsess more about today’s overheated words. Particularly the important ones like “migrants” and “thugs.”

“Migrants” is my obsession since I once fled from conflict myself and am deeply concerned about the current global crisis. On the surface, it seems like a good word. Something all-encompassing that can be used while the specifics are sorted out. Even a word that taps into the basic tendency of populations to move from one location to another. Human beings migrateOther animals migrate, as well. Even plant life as rooted as forests migrates. The problem is that the word lumps together voluntary and forced population movement, which can be a fine distinction but often has profound implications. A better general term would be “displaced persons,” which was used for people like me during and after World War II and only refers to forced migration. Which makes me wonder whether governments now conveniently avoid the term because it has real meaning under international law.

You see, displaced persons who have crossed a border and fall under one of a number of international legal instruments are considered to be “refugees.” And, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, they have the right to seek asylum in the nation that they enter and to enjoy all the rights and benefits that exist therein. They are also exempt from penalties pertaining to illegal entry, provided that they promptly declare their presence, and are protected from forcible return to their country of origin. “Asylum-seekers,” by the way, are DPs who could be refugees but whose claims have not yet been properly evaluated. So that would be another entirely appropriate term to use these days.

But how people are seen can be as important as their legal status. Call displaced persons “migrants” and you run the risk transforming them into an invasive subhuman species that must be herded into pens and grudgingly tossed some food, as has happened in Hungary. Or, when granted human characteristics, turned into illegal immigrants that deserve to be beaten, arrested and deported, as has occurred there and in Slavic states. Even in the United States, where “migrant” is not only a noun but also an adjective, as in “migrant worker,” the word can be disparaging. Thus, someone as caring as Clarinda has to admit, “‘Migrant’ has taken on a specific class-related meaning for me. A ‘refugee’ can be a surgeon, a poet, a ballet dancer. A ‘migrant’ will be cleaning your toilets if there’s not enough fruit-picking to go around.”

Therefore, given how wrongly “migrants” are viewed and treated in a number of nations, it comes as no surprise that a dispirited Syrian student would sum it up for a reporter from The Guardian by saying:

You know Tupac? You know his song “Thug Life“? That’s us right now,” he laughs. “We’re living the Thug Life—we have sleeping bags, and we sleep on the floor.

Which brings me to Clarinda’s word, “thugs.” It has great relevance for her since she lives a few miles from Mondawmin Mall, where, earlier this year, protests of Freddie Gray’s death had turned sufficiently violent to receive international coverage. But both of us should have been more alert from the outset to the role that words played in the accompanying commentary. You see, a substantial number of people in leadership positions, including President Barak Obama, attributed the mayhem to “criminals” and “thugs.” I thought nothing of it, given his taste in music tends toward Etta James, except to note that the latter word was redundant and rather quaint. And sloppy for someone with a law degree who usually chooses words with great care.

It did not occur to me that “thugs” was possibly being used as a code word until I learned that it was the subject of considerable discussion in Clarinda’s neighborhood online chat room. “I weighed in several times on the meaning of ‘thug,’ she said, “which has regrettably taken on ‘black’ coloration. I knew from my father that it originated from the ‘Thuggee’ fraternity in India—highway robbers who worshiped Kali in the ‘goddess of murder’ guise. I always used it to mean cheap lower-tier criminals, white; it came in handy for skinheads. However, with my lifelong fascination with language, I understand that language changes, and you cannot make a word un-mean something it has come to mean. So yeah, in 2015 Baltimore, ‘thug’ is a racial slur.”

It is not so surprising that a word that started with one negative meaning would end up with another one. But it did come as a shock when “displaced person,” shortened to “DP,” was used pejoratively against my family and me and fellow Latvians after we arrived at our final destination, Grand Rapids, Michigan, since that term had no inherently negative connotations. It seems that when people are prejudiced against any segment of society, any word will do. Still, America has changed enough that I now proudly use DISPLACED PERSON as my website name. Perhaps that will also occur with some variant of “thug.” (But not the way it has with the likes of Thug Kitchen, mistakenly considered as cool.) Because there was a time when, through the artistry of the late Tupac Shakur, it was a word that filled a real void.

You see, Urban Dictionary defines “thug” as “someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them.” It makes a point of differentiating “thug” from “gangster,” citing Shakur: “That boy ain’t a gangsta, fo’ sho.’  Look at how he walks, he’s a thug.  life. That’s the saddest face I’ve seen in all my life as a teen.” Viewed this way, a thug could be a kid from Sandtown who showed up to support Gray and took it too far. He could be that kid from Syria, who might soon retaliate for how he is being treated. Both could say what Shakur did in a 1996 interview:

I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me. All I’m trying to do is survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty unbelievable lifestyle that they gave me.

Note: For more on the current refugee crisis, see my two previous pieces, “Debt of Honor” and “Were You Ever a Refugee?” For more on the people that America calls “criminals,” see the piece that I wrote with Clarinda, “On Being Invisible: Our Nation’s Incarcerated,” for Little Patuxent Review.

2 thoughts on “Migrants and Thugs”

  1. Thanks, Ilse, for another incisive and NECESSARY essay. I’m happy and proud that our recent conversation found its way into it. I hope readers understand that my sense of the “menial worker” connotation of “migrant” nowadays does not mean that I personally see migrants that way; what I meant was that I think “migrant” really has taken on that connotation, whether we like it or not– and that some politicos find the disparagement useful.

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