After fixing a plate of fried plantains, Jolly of Rice and chicken stew, and mixed vegetables, an excellent impromptu conversation began. This time, the conversation was about the acronyms TUGs (Traditionally Underrepresented Groups) and thugs (here is another definition). The conversation started because I said “Now we can increase TUGs’ (Traditionally Underrepresented Groups) statistics.”
This is a reference to African American male graduation rates.
This issue about the African American male low graduation rates is not new. Most of the discussion about this issue is categorized under TUGs.
An immediate response to this comment was this question: “How can you call them ‘thugs?’”
“I did not call them ‘thugs.’” I replied. “I called them TUGs.”
“They sound the same to me.”
“No they don’t,” I responded. I don’t think they sound the same.
Here is the catch to the sound issue. Everyone at the celebration table was Deaf or Hard of Hearing (HoH). I am HoH and after years of speech therapy, pronunciation is still not my strong suit. I do the best I can to pronounce every word. I guess this broke the camel’s back during a deep conversation about labels that are often assigned to people of color.
There are labels that often categorize people of color in a negative light. Some of these labels have good intentions. Most don’t. So the conversation began with overlaps of American Sign Language (ASL). Everyone at the celebration table began signing at the same time. It’s very difficult to catch everything when that happens. It is almost like having twenty hearing people talking at the same time.
I call these types of conversations “dialogues.” I think they are dialogues because each person has a different view on the issue. Each view, per our informal ground rules, is respected for just that. Each view is an opinion, a point of view, and one’s expression of how they see things.
These views were not based on researched facts. They are based on a combination of individual, personal experiences and observations about issues that impact Blacks, Latinos (nas), and Asians, and specifically issues about race and associated labels. They are not about what is right or what is wrong. Each offers a different view, a different perspective about a current or past issue regarding race and labels associated with race. (I added the links later when I wrote this blog.)
The group offered different ideas about how thugs and TUGs sound the same and how it could be misleading to use TUGs, especially in education. I didn’t think so because I have seen and read about TUGs in education. It is usually spelled out and then a reference is made associated with people of color or minorities.
I opined that tugs is fitting in relation to minorities. I added that I could come up with a list that put me in that tugs category. I proceeded to give the following list:
I was born and raised in Ghana, West Africa. Usually without disclosing this information, I am seen as African American. I am a Black man – asked and answered – TUG and thug depending on who you ask. I am HoH – I am categorized within TUGs – a politically correct label the government uses in reports about minorities, people of color, and tug achievements.
That said, I received counter-perspectives from around the table. One of my friends sitting at the table added that TUGs or thugs, we will always be viewed as underrepresented. She thought this way because TUGs and thugs are not acronyms created by people of color. She felt that TUGs and thugs are political control mechanisms ergo politically correct acronyms that are used to control and marginalize non-Whites.
“Hold on! That’s a powerful statement,” I exclaimed. But I ‘held my hands’ (we were using ASL). The hearing expression is I ‘held my tongue’. I needed to wait for her to finish.
She continued with this question: “Who came up with TUGs or thugs and why?” Now we were all looking at each other. This wasn’t supposed to be a pop quiz. This was a graduation celebration that turned into an intellectual dialogue.
She added another question: “Why is it that people of color get labels like ‘minorities’ that evolves to ‘people of color,’ and then ‘TUGs’ or ‘thugs?’” She said, “last she checked, there were more non-Whites in this world than Whites.
Interesting perspective, I thought.
A young man raised his hand and agreed with her. He added that no matter how hard we Blacks, people of color, or TUGs worked, no matter how much education we get, we will always be in a marginalized label category even though we may be the majority worldwide. We will always be underrepresented somehow under some given label.
He continued that he was not interested in talking and discussing issues that were related to Hearing folks. He was interested in a discussion about TUGs or thugs related to the Black Deaf and HoH community. We were usually categorized within some type of label that is usually not in the majority unless we reveal our hearing status.
He gave an example: If a Black Deaf male dressed in baggy pants, he would be viewed as a thug even if he is educated. The fact that a HoH Black Deaf male listened to and enjoyed rap and hip hop music probably made him a thug (not necessarily true, I thought to myself, but then again I could be naive). When he goes shopping he is always followed around in the store as a suspected thug without people knowing that he is educated and has a job.
The one place a Black Deaf male might enter the TUGs world is in academia. That is where someone with power and privilege will categorize him within TUGs. Even so, the Black Deaf male is still at a disadvantage. Like it or not, sound the same or not, he will always be a thug because of his skin color.
On that note another young man agreed to disagree. He agreed that Black Deaf males have a disability that is not visible to the naked eye without disclosing our hearing status. He disagreed with another point: he didn’t think that Black Deaf males fit the thugs bill/perspective just because of the color or our skin. He agreed that we probably fit the TUGs bill instead. He continued to opine that thug is a very negative word that is related to being a gangsta. He felt that a thug label is usually assigned to Black and Latino hearing males who are into drug dealing, rap music, and gangs.
Very interesting, I thought.
On that note an ASL overlap of conversations erupted around the table. Almost everyone at the table was signing in disagreement with this young man’s perspective. Except for the one young lady who had not said a word. I finally managed to get everyone’s attention and asked the young lady what she thought.
Her response was that she’s been listening and thinking about what we were all saying. She thought it was interesting that America is thought to be a melting pot country. In her opinion there are so many mixed races, including Whites. There may be a point in the future that we all someday end up in the TUGs category.
She asked, “How would we label bi-racials?” She thought that some bi-racials have a dark skin complexion. She wanted to know how we would categorize bi-racials. She thought that bi-racials are a growing (or already are) population that is often omitted from the thug and TUGs conversation.
I was speechless. I did not know how to respondto this excellent point and observation. I entered my own mental time warp trip into the past and unknown. I say “past and unknown” because I was thinking about the inception of America.
My understanding from reading so much different historical prose about the American evolution is that, prior to the arrival of the English, the Spaniards were here and owned a huge portion of the land. Indians or Native Americans lived here before anyone arrived. Since then American has evolved.
Today, we have all the different shades from pale skin to dark skin. I found myself fascinated with the evolution. I was smiling in my dreamy time warp thoughts at the table when someone caught me and asked why I was smiling.
I responded that I was smiling about an experience I had with my daughter. I went to the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. with my then five year old daughter. She is six now. She is a princess! I was smiling at her reaction when we visited the museum’s exhibit on Race.
Prior to visiting this exhibition, we saw the evolution of animals, insects, fish, and other primates. She loved the live butterflies and was amusingly terrified when a butterfly landed on her shoulder. Then we ended up in the Race exhibition.
My princess was both in awe and confused at many of the discussions (that I explained to her in ASL) related to each section of the race exhibition. I am positive she was in awe at how I signed to her because ASL is a beautiful language. My friends will tell you that I am very animated when I sign and teach. At the same time she was probably confused about the different images that depicted diverse perspectives on race. Most were very negative toward people of color, minorities, TUGs, and thugs.
I tried the best I knew how to answer her questions. One particular question stuck with me. This was a question related to a particular exhibition picture. It was a picture of different individuals in white t-shirts.
I thought it was thought provoking that I was having a conversation I had with my six year old princess. I encourage readers to take a virtual tour of the Race exhibition and focus on the census part. You will find the picture. Zoom in and review the labels.
I continued to share with our celebration table that my daughter’s questions were challenging to answer. Her generation probably shares a different view on the TUGs and thugs issue than we do. Her generation is symbolic of the melting pot perspective that the young lady at our table discussed. Her perspective is the bi-racial perspective because she is bi-racial. Her skin complexion is a little lighter than mine and gorgeous. I wondered at that moment in my thoughts which label fits my gorgeous princess – TUGs, thug, minority, light skin, person of color, or mixed?
Then I realized that a conversation about race, labels like TUGs, or thugs, or any other label is not an easy one. It was more complex than our little graduation celebration dialogue regarding how TUGs and thugs could be misleading based on sound. At the same time I was glad we were having the conversation.
I continued to share that an article was recently published that minority babies are now a majority. I thought it was interesting that the article used the minority label in relation to TUGs. I said “Perhaps the article could have been titled ‘Traditionally Underrepresented Babies Are Now A Majority’.”
The ASL overlap conversation erupted again. I finally got everyone’s attention and told them that we would not arrive at a consensus on that Saturday afternoon. I thought we all offered thought provoking perspectives and I wanted to talk with others at the party. I moved to a different table to partake in a different conversation.
For my readers I am curious about your thoughts. I know that this type of conversation is usually difficult for some and most. At the same time I think it is a conversation that could bring us together as a people. It is a conversation that could shed some light on the complex issues related to race and labels in general.
I believe in dialogues. I think a dialogue is congruent to what Dr. Martin Luther King and other proponents of the Civil Rights Movement would want from us today. It might not give us an answer but I think it will help many of us on different levels. I think many of us will appreciate a good dialogue about some of the “elephants” in our neighborhoods.
For me this dialogue with the graduates was beautiful and insightful. It made me realize that the world is changing at a pace beyond my imagination. It also made me realize that the more I learn about race, labels such as minority, majority, TUGs, thugs, mulatto, gangsta, etc, and more I don’t know. I am grateful to my family and friends who continue to teach me something every day about the human race and how beautiful we all are regardless of whether or not TUGs and thugs sound the same.
[Editor's Note: This article was published in its original form in the author's blog on June 3, 2012.]