“Look at this Facebook photo of this baby in ‘boots with the fur,’ how ghetto is that?” laughed a group of white girls at the next table.
I keep my nose in my book, while I sip my coffee. This was the scene at my local coffee shop. I make a note of the girls’ conversation and go on, but something about it, sticks in my craw.
At work, my co-worker, who believes me to be a Racial Thermometer of sorts, comes back to the stock room to ask me if this was racist: She plans on teaching at a public school this fall in Toledo and finds out her school is located in the downtown area. When a customer gets wind of this, the woman warns her, “My kids went to school there, be ready to teach in the ghetto.” When my co-worker asks the woman to expand on that statement. The woman replies: “Have you been to that part of town? It’s the ghetto. I’m just saying, be prepared for the mouth on some of those kids.” I tell her that this is, in fact, racist. It is not an observation that the woman would not make while I am at the register. Satisfied with my answer, my co-worker is outraged.
Then I stumble upon this video on YouTube by AfricanExport: “Hoodrats are Taking Over.” In it, she’s outraged by the state of women today. In Oakland, where she lives, she sees the negative affects of urbanization in the form of “blue lipstick” and “see through leggings with polka-dotted underwear.” She maintains that these women need to take better care of themselves. They lack the social graces to properly represent women everywhere. “Do you know if you’re a hoodrat?” she asks. As if these women don’t know that they are a “blight” to our society. Her word is blight. More on that later.
My final interaction with the word ghetto ends with this website: Hot Ghetto Mess. Go on and click on it, you know you want to. But you might be saddened by what you see. Apparently, there is a whole genre of websites devoted to this sort of subject. We live in a voyeuristic society that loves seeing the next train wreck and blacks in a the most grand of minstrel shows is it.
Now back to my co-worker. Why was she confused, but irked by her customer’s observation? I wonder if ghetto is a word that has assimilated itself so seamlessly into our nation’s vernacular? Is it so assimilated that we’ve all but forgotten it’s meaning and origins?
To help me understand what ghetto really means, my husband, the ever logical linguist, refers me to the Online Oxford Dictionary. It’s an interesting resource that still tracks words as they’re used throughout history. Here’s what I found:
Early 1600’s— Possible Italian origins. “A quarter in a city, to which Jews were restricted.”
1800’s— “A quarter in a city. A thickly populated slum area inhabited by a minority group or groups as a result of economic or social pressure. . . “
1980’s— Ghetto blaster, slang. “A large portable stereo radio (or cassette player). One on which (black) popular music is played.
1990’s to now— Ghetto Fabulous, slang. “an ostentatious or flamboyant lifestyle or manner of dress, associated with hip hop subculture and characterized as a marker of status in economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.”
In depth enough for you?
So here we are dealing with a class issue involving a disadvantaged and disenfranchised people. Back in the day, it was the Jews. Remember the Warsaw Ghettos? Now it’s the Black and Latinos. The evolution of such a word is interesting and unsettling. In the case of AfricanExports, these people are “blights.” The language choice bothers me because people now seem like pestilence (objectifying them) ruining our gentrified living.
We make fun of these people we are embarrassed by. We call them ghetto and wonder why they “can’t do better?” Why can’t they pull themselves out of their ghettos and do something better with their lives? Instead they are a blight that live on the dole and suck from our illustrious economy.
But remember what the ghetto is. An area where the disadvantaged are restricted. We put them in a few square blocks and let the area fester and rot, all the while criticizing them for the life choices they’ve made. We’re comfortable in the suburbs but afraid to confront the real economical divide in our nation. It’s a divide that grows greater with each day. No one talks openly about class in our nation. That doesn’t mean that we’re not deathly afraid of what could happen to us should we lose our job. Most of us don’t want to admit how we’re just one missed pay check from becoming the hoodrats we fear.
AfricanExport did eventually return to make another video about her previous hoodrat statements. She reiterated that she wasn’t singling out a single race of women. In fact, all races have the potential for “hoodrat-ism.” And that’s true, I guess. But we all know that black women have been vilified throughout history for not getting their shit together. She stresses that “no one cares about your excuses.” Meaning, you can bang the same drum of woe is me for growing up in the ghetto, but it will fall on deaf ears in the real world. So pull yourself up by the bootstraps.
Moving up from your station is big myth in America. If you grew up in a middle-class household, it is very unlikely that you’re going to move up the economic ladder. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but very few make it to the penthouse. If you’ve grown up in ghetto, I’m not saying there’s no hope for you, but you’re going to have to hustle hard to get to the middle-class. If you have help from a mentor or a scholarship, god bless you.
Political pundits have theorized that my generation will be the first to do worst than our parents. Maybe, maybe not. Look at Detroit. At one time it was prosperous city where people had steady factory jobs but industry up and left, leaving jobless people in it’s wake. Now Detroit is the ghetto that no one wants to visit. The bad part is that the whole nation might end up where Detroit is. One vast wasteland of a ghetto. So yes, I guess the hoodrats are taking over.
We need to lay off this reckless language that makes us feel superior. It is racist. The pointing and laughing does nothing to solve the problem of poverty. So what if a school is located in the ghetto? I hope my co-worker takes this challenge as an opportunity to do good for an area by inspiring and motivating its children. So what if a woman chooses to wear blue lipstick? You don’t have anything to do with her fashion choices and it really doesn’t effect your day. What if she’s a woman who’s has a lot of problems on her plate, but still tries to find time to express herself the best way she can? Remember, you are what your environment is. If you’re so hell bent on changing people, help them change their surroundings.
The next time you say the word ghetto to describe something or someone or if you hear someone else use it, ask them and yourself, what it all means. You might be met with confusion and embarrassment when forced to decipher the message. Ask yourself “What is ghetto about ______?” And then ask yourself, “Why am I afraid of this ghetto _______?”