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"Ghetto," when used colloquially as an adjective, is the most racist, derogatory word in the common lexicon, given its so subtle insinuations and layers.  Employed to mean "uncouth," "unruly," or "parvenu," “ghetto” is the most popular, new code word to stigmatize blacks.   

Referring to unacceptable behaviors as "ghetto" clearly links those behaviors to "the ghetto," where the bulk of black people in this country happen to live.  Using inductive logic, which we often do, that means behaving inappropriately can be equated with behaving black.  Furthermore, even though many, if not most, people don't realize it, when one associates "the ghetto" with deviant behaviors, through contrast he is simultaneously associating normal, standard, or acceptable behavior with the suburbs, its antithesis.  As a test, ask yourself, what does it mean to act "suburban," if acting "ghetto" means unruly, etc? 

Ghettos certainly do not have a monopoly on deviance and unacceptable behavior, nor do suburbs have a monopoly on sophistication, manners, and civility.  Thus, the colloquial usage of "ghetto" perpetuates racist mythology and also mischaracterizes the majority of people that, by definition, live in the ghetto, since most of them don't act "ghetto."

"Ghetto," derived from the Italian word for the island where Jews were forced to live in Venice (“gheto”), means "a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure" according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary.  Formerly a term that evoked sympathy, people use it now to mock and stigmatize.  It's no coincidence that when Jews and Italians, having achieved economic success, emigrated from the central cities and black folks moved in, ghetto's connotation changed.  Ghettoes used to be places where downtrodden, isolated minorities used to work hard to achieve the American dream for their children.  Now, in the conception of our nation, including black folks (sad to say), instead of persevering and ambitious, ghetto people are shiftless, criminal, and materialistic.

It seems like everyone has a story to illustrate what "ghetto" is: Shaquequay from down the block with two, different baby daddies, who went to the club last Friday and spent her last $100 for her section-8 rent on drinks; or Jerome, unemployed, who plays PlayStation2 all day and keeps leeching off his baby momma to smoke weed and go to the strip club with his boys.  Of course these stories exist, but in comparison how many other people in the hood are doing their best to remain upright and strive for better?  The word "ghetto" as an adjective doesn't specify though, it necessarily labels all of us, every urban resident, since the noun version accurately refers to where we live.  “Ghetto” also belies the reality that ghetto dwellers themselves criticize so-called “ghetto” behaviors like those above.  For example, most people that live in the hood hate when teenagers talk fully animated, at high decibel in the back of the bus, or when folks curse gratuitously in public.   

More importantly, what is the word for white people that are uncouth, etc?  We have “ghetto” to describe the catty, cacophonous, neck-rolling arguments that some black women get into, but no word to describe it when white girls get inebriated and put their private parts on exhibit for the public, a la “Girls Gone Wild.”  We have “ghetto” to describe the loud, truculent altercations that black men get into with one another outside of nightclubs or parties sometimes, but no word to describe the drunken brawls that white boys participate in just as often.  We have “ghetto” to describe “boosters” that steal clothes from retail stores, then resell the merchandise, but no word to describe the more affluent, savvy white men that cheat on their income taxes, or run away with their employees’ pensions, a la Enron. 

There are definitely terms like "hick" and "poor, white trash" that whites use intra-racially to describe deviants amongst themselves.  In contrast though, these still only apply to individuals, not to numerous, geographic areas, in which the bulk of the race resides!  (Imagine what effect on the perception of white people an insidious stigma about the suburbs would have.)  Nothing about either term makes a blanket generalization about white people, while the relationship between “ghetto” and black folks is indelible.

Evidence of this relationship is the commonality of statements like, "You can be black and not be ghetto," which sounds a hell of a lot like the formerly popular, "You can be black and not be a nigger."  People even make comments like “ghetto-ass, white boy.”  The first remark obviously insinuates black people are usually “ghetto,” or at least that people that are “ghetto” are usually black.  The latter obviously insinuates that white boys, and white people in general, usually aren’t “ghetto,” since the identification, “white boy,” is necessary to complete the description.  Indeed, if ten people heard someone refer to someone else as “ghetto ass,” at least nine out of ten would assume the person referred to was black, unless otherwise specified.

The irony about "ghetto," when used as an adjective, is that black folk that live in the ghetto conceived it themselves.  When the adjective became popular in the mid-90s, ghetto residents originally used it to poke fun at the absurd, depressing situation that is living in the inner city and/or to describe ingenuity and resourcefulness – e.g. using a milk crate as a basketball hoop or a hangar as a TV antenna.  At some point, the definition in the hood expanded to comically, somewhat affectionately, refer to the quirky, rebellious, and desperate behaviors that poverty stimulates.  As a consequence of the popularization and exploitation of hip-hop culture, along with the changed complexion of inner cities (described earlier), the tone has changed drastically from comical and endearing to contemptuous and mocking. 

Now groups that are outside of hip-hop, but still consume it ravenously, (i.e. uppity black folk, Asians, and whites), in the effort to “be down,” chime in using the term as a means to say “inferior,” “inappropriate,” “unacceptable,” “uncouth,” and a host of other negatives.  Often they employ it to describe stuff they do too, like showing up late to work, but laughingly assign to “riff-raff,” like the "lower economic blacks" Bill Cosby was talking about.  The word has been co-opted and morphed to the point that ghetto people now use it to distinguish themselves from one another.  But what else is new?  Definitely not black folks’ ridicule and criticism of each other for white approval, or the mainstream’s seizure of something, which marginalized blacks conceived to mitigate their plight, for profit and the convenient exploitation of its creators.     

Harold M. Clemens is a staff writer for We The Voices magazine.  He also blogs regularly at Ghetto Uprising.

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March 31 2005
Issue 132

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