Who You Callin’ Ghetto?!!


I am what some people would call a “wordsmith” and who my sisters would jokingly refer to as the “word police.” Although I am not one of those language snobs on social media that spell checks everyone’s posts; I do, however, pay a lot of attention to the words that people use and the context in which they use them.  To quote one of my favorite podcast hosts, Crissle, I believe that, “Words mean things.”  As such, when people make statements, I tend to analyze (some would say over-analyze) the meaning behind them.

One such incident happened the other day.  I was having a conversation with a colleague who was upset about a money issue and threatening to “go in” on the parties involved.  In explaining how the situation was about to happen, he said, “I know ya’ll think that I’m nice and all, but I’m five seconds from turning into a huge, ghetto b***h!”  While I was initially amused by the whole scene, my mind soon went to his use of the word, “ghetto.”  Almost immediately I posed the following question in my mind: “When people, today, use the word, “ghetto” are they also tacitly referring to Black people or, more specifically, how they perceive Black people’s behavior to be?”

I turned this idea over in my mind, and I begin to think of other times when this word was used and in what context. In the scenario with my colleague, he used it to mean, “angry.”  The words that he spoke conjured up images of someone that you would see on a day time talk show, i.e., Maury or Jerry Springer.  But those women aren’t always Black, so why did I automatically take it to mean Black people?

I thought of other instances where the word was used. Another colleague had used the term in a similar fashion, explaining how she had to get aggressive with someone who was disrespecting her; again, the word, “ghetto” was used to explain the intensity of the aggression that she used.  But this wasn’t the only way that I was used to hearing the word.

One of my friends was talking about grocery shopping at a certain chain, explaining how she would never shop there again because it was too “ghetto.” When I asked her what she meant by that word, her answer somewhat shocked me.   Her interpretation of the word “ghetto” differed from my colleagues in that she used it to mean defunct or substandard.  That part didn’t shock me.  What shocked me was her answer when I asked her about the meaning of the word and if it possibly had racist undertones.  When asked, she replied, “Sure, people use the word to refer to Black people, like when they say ‘ghetto fabulous’ or refer to styles that were influenced by usually impoverished Black neighborhoods (i.e., her hair is ghetto), but words change meanings all of the time.”

It was at this point that I began to look at the use of this word differently. Although etymologists struggle with the root of the word “ghetto,” it is widely known that the word did not originally refer to African-Americans; in fact, for a long time it referred to Jewish people who were segregated to certain sectors of society.  It wasn’t until the 20th century with the large scale segregation of Blacks in America, along with the creation of the suburbs from White Flight, that the term “ghetto” was used to apply to Black people.  This made me think.  If Jewish people could evolve to the point where the word “ghetto” no longer applied to them, then why are we, as Black people still so tied to this word?  Why do we still see it as a “Black” word, when that wasn’t its origin, nor does it apply to our current predicament?

While it is true that a disproportionate amount of African Americans live in low income areas, this state does not describe us as a whole. Furthermore, it is not a condition that we MUST face, as it once was during our history.  There are generations of African Americans who know nothing about the “ghetto,” so why is this word still used to define us exclusively?  I understand that the term isn’t applied to every African American, but it seems that it is only applied to certain groups of Blacks or certain characteristics that have become associated with Black people.  (Ex: Poor White people aren’t generally referred to as ghetto.) The question is why?

When I posed this question to another friend, she gave further insight on the situation, by stating, “Words change. Just as the word once exclusively referred to Jewish people, it also once referred exclusively to Black people.  Now the word doesn’t refer to anyone exclusively.  When people use it, most often, they mean something that isn’t too well put together, which isn’t racially exclusive, at all.”  In short, her belief is that Black people no longer have to claim this word or feel offended when people use it with its negative connotations because it is not referring to Black people or any particular race.

To be rather transparent, I can say that I don’t know who’s right. I guess it would depend on who’s using the word and the context.  While I’m not ready to say that we’ve reached a post-racial society, I also don’t want to police every word and interpret everything as a racial onslaught.  I must admit, though; I’m still confused about this word.  What about you?

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