"People are too complicated to have simple labels."
That's the title of the Facebook album that Baltimore teacher Kat Locke uploaded to her page last evening. The album showcases images of her 7th grade Baltimore Public School students, all people of color, holding up signs with a simple, yet vital, message: "I am not a thug."
But the idea didn't come from her. The idea came from Quran, one of her students, because he felt like he wasn't heard. She told A Plus that he was hearing the word "thug" thrown around to describe the people that looked like him, and he wanted to prove he wasn't one.
"I think what my kids do understand is that 'thug' is becoming a word that is used too often to describe black children," Locke told A Plus. "Quran wanted to make sure that when people saw a black kid from Baltimore that 'thug' was not a synonym."
According to Merriam-Webster, thug is defined as "a violent criminal." And many have been using that word to describe Baltimore residents, primarily people of color, who may be protesting the mysterious death of a black man in police custody.
But however people try to justify using that word, which has been called basically a substitute for the N-word, it's downright demeaning.
"If the word 'thug' were used to reference all forms of violent action, that would be one thing," wrote Mic's Derrick Clifton. "But this word has become reserved for black people, regardless of whether or not they're engaged in civil unrest or criminal activity."
Think about it. When sports fans take to the street to riot, the word "thug" is hardly said, if at all. But when a group of people of color riot (or engage in peaceful protest), because someone died in police custody, they're described using this incredibly degrading term.
Because of this, Locke's 7th graders need to spell out their worth to you. To prove that just because they may feel angry, unheard and unsafe in their own community, doesn't make them thugs. It makes them human.
"What makes this 'interesting' is that their voices aren't always the ones being highlighted. All the love, and the hope, and the good, and the fearlessness in the world is right here in Baltimore but it won't be able to catch up to you if you're in full fledge roadrunner mode, judging before you've heard their stories," Locke told A Plus.
When asked why she believes these photos were important, she said we all need to take a step back and look at the people involved:
"I can make as many Facebook statuses as I want and I can stand up and tell you how wonderful and brilliant my kids are but, honestly, I don't have to. Their voices are stronger than mine ... I just had the markers and paper."
So, the next time you want to use the "T" word, remember these students and then don't.
All photos courtesy of Kat Healy.