I remember very distinctly the first time a white person used the term “thug” to me and I knew they really meant “N*****.” I was working for a Fortune 500 company in their Supply Chain division as a budding manager. I had built out and ran a home delivery program for this company and managed a P&L of about $30 million dollars annually. It was the most stressful yet rewarding time of my life. I had received Executive Leadership awards from my senior leadership team and had been recognize company wide for my contributions. Exceptional customer service skills have always been one of my strongest attributes and I prided myself on being able to negotiate and manage tough customer service situations. There were many a time where my company president sent me issues to resolve and trusted me implicitly to make decisions on what the right course of action was. I said all this not to brag in any way, but more to provide context of my work ethic and standing at this particular point in time at this company. I was well respected and had worked my ass off to be so.
One uneventful day, I was stopped in the hall at our head office by a manager who needed my help resolving an issue with a delivery a friend of his had had by our company; specifically by my department. He relayed to me a concerning story about the delivery drivers having allegedly damaged his friends home and then having an inappropriate exchange in front of the customers; “frightening” them so much so that the customers (his friends) were so “afraid” of these men that instead of them addressing the damage with them at the time, they decided to escalate the situation to the head office via their connection to this individual. So he wanted my help to firstly get resolution of the damage to their home and then compensation for the damages done to the items they had purchased that were being delivered. I reacted immediately the same way I would for any customer (that’s why I was so good at my job) and asked for pictures and supporting documentation. I followed up with contracted carrier we used at the time and the Operations Manager who managed the drivers told me he would personally investigate what happened and get back to me. Because of the allegations being made about the inappropriate exchange, the Ops Manager assured me he’d personally go out to the house of the customer and investigate what happened. So he did exactly what we would do in any situation like this. He took the drivers who completed the original delivery back to the house and assessed the damage with them to understand what could have happened and if they were in fact liable. If the drivers legitimately caused damage, they were financially responsible for it, and that agreement was between themselves and the carrier they worked for. Because this essentially is a claim that the drivers pay for out of their earnings if they are at fault, it is extremely important for the original drivers to be present when the determination is made. In some transportation companies, the drivers are contractors not direct employees of the company and therefore any damage to their loads are their financial responsibility. Carriers will deduct it out of their earnings when they get paid so if something comes out of a drivers pay that they weren’t expecting, it can have a huge negative financial impact on them.
As I normally do, I waited until the manager got back to me with his findings. He circled back and advised they were going to pay for the damages and get it fixed and I agreed to compensation to the customer from my end. When I asked about the remarks, he said the drivers assured him they hadn’t spoken inappropriately in front of the client.They know better. At no point were they cursing at or in front of the customers for any reason. I sent a quick email to the manager internally letting him know we would compensate the customers and take care of the damages. I also told him there was no evidence that the drivers had acted inappropriately in front of the family so I would need more specific details if they were sticking to their story and claiming otherwise. About a week or so later, I ran into this manager in the hallway again and asked him how things were. He gave me this fake patronizing smile and said that things weren’t good at all and that he needed to speak to me. We agreed to a time to meet later that day to discuss whatever his grievance was.
When we met up, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, as from my perspective, the resolution the customer originally asked for was fully given. So what could possibly have been the issue? The answer: Racism. White Privilege. And a healthy dose of sexism thrown in for good measure. The manager began to relay to me his extreme upset and displeasure in how I had handled this situation. At my completely perplexed look, he proceeded to tell me that his friend had called him in a fit of rage that the drivers who had completed the original delivery had shown up at his house with their supervisor (the Ops Manager I connected with) and that it was a total disgrace. You see, the drivers were two black men. He then referred to them as “thugs” repeatedly and said when they showed up at his friends house, his friend’s wife and daughter felt “frightened” and unsafe in the house with the men. Keep in mind, the Operations Manager who literally comes from the same European country as this manager and spoke his language fluently was present in the house with the drivers and customers to review the situation. After I told him that the standard practise was for the drivers and supervisors to go back together and why, he cut me off mid sentence to tell me that I had embarrassed him in front of his friend and that his reputation was being called into question because of the situation. He went on to explain that he met with this person for brunch every Sunday and how was he going to face him with a situation like this? He said he had entrusted me to take care of this but that I sent these “thugs” to his friends home. I apologized to him for not making him aware that the drivers would be the ones to go back, which in hindsight I shouldn’t have done as I had nothing to apologize to him for. But at the time I was a new manager and wanted to make good impressions at my company because I understood how things worked at this specific company and others like it. I remember walking away from the conversation first feeling like I was in the twilight zone and then on its heels was the swift anger and rage. I called my manager at the time into a meeting and recounted to her what had happened. She was a black woman and was the only black female senior manager in our company’s Canadian division at the time. She empathised with me (briefly) and said she was sorry that the interaction had happened and asked me what I wanted to do. I remember us discussing that there really was no real recourse as he would never be held accountable for his use of the term “thugs” which she and I both knew and understood to be his code switch for “N*****,” but without hard core proof, we had nothing to go on. And good luck still keeping your job if you accuse a white man in the corporate world of racism, even when they are being blatantly racist to your face in the form of microaggressions. So I decided to drop it and simply ignore this person, which wasn’t hard to do as we worked out of different office locations. But I never forgot the interaction and from that moment on, my working relationship with this person completely changed. My view of the company also changed significantly. I couldn’t understand how someone who said the things he did had the position he did and made the money he did in a company that espoused diversity & inclusion as one of their core values and strengths. Yet here was a man engaging in racist rhetoric, allowed to flourish and prosper in broad daylight on their dime.
Since that time, I have heard some white men use this term to describe Black men they don’t like for whatever arbitrary reason in a derogatory way. And it is very specific and intentional. From my observation and experience, they do not refer to Black women as “thugs” (they simply call us Black bitches). The thug moniker is designated to Black men and male children only when coming from these people. It is meant to dehumanize Black males as much as possible which then creates an environment where violence against Black men and children is not only allowed but justistified. What’s so ironic about this situation in particular is that the company required all drivers to submit to rigorous background and criminal checks (which I managed and were updated constantly) so no driver could have been a literal “thug” or they wouldn’t even be working for us. But again, the people involved who used this term didn’t mean a literal thug. They meant a Black man. They meant a n*****. I’ve recently been triggered with this term again as I watch Republicans in the US send out social media posts referring to Black protesters as “thugs” and are trying to convince blue collar white American men that they are coming to burn and loot their cities and cause mayhem. Meanwhile, there have been numerous videos that have surfaced showing police officers damaging and defacing their own property to make it look like BLM protesters did it. This is real. This is actually happening. And because of the dehumanizing of our men and boys, they are being executed in broad daylight because they are seen as less than human. They are see as “thugs.”
So I submit to everyone reading this, the Black community and accomplices alike. The next time you hear a white person refer to Black men and boys as thugs, gently but firmly question them on it. Ask them why that is the term that they used to refer to them. Openly challenge people on their racist rhetoric. In my opinion, we as a society have become way too complacent as a whole with allowing unhealthy problematic behaviours to flourish and thrive and in holding people accountable for their words, actions and deeds that are detrimental to others in the community. I will never be a fan of shaming people, whether publicly or privately as it achieves nothing and only causes further harm and damage. But having said that, there is a clear delineation between shaming someone and holding them accountable for their problematic behaviours that have impacted others in sometimes traumatic ways. There is deep, deep healing that needs to occur and it cannot start until we first collectively admit and identify that there is a problem and then collectively move towards the solution. Together.