City Desk

“Ghetto”: Just What Do You Mean by That?

boxermural_fromcorner_lo1Greater Greater Washington, in an interesting blog post the other day, delved into the use of the word "ghetto" in part in response to the heated online discussion that ensued over a mural that went up in Bloomingdale earlier this year.

After a neighborhood blog pictured the mural of "Boxer Girl," a black woman clad in workout attire with her hands raised in boxer's gloves and sporting a black eye, at least one commenter expressed dislike for it by dubbing it "ghetto" – thus setting off a long (and unresolved) debate over the mural's artistic merits, what, exactly, it said about the neighborhood, and, now, the use of that descriptor.

Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau and resident of Petworth, weighed in at GGW, drawing heavily from the thinking of University of Chicago sociology professor Mario Small, who has argued that the term be abandoned, at least as a concept used in talking about black urban poverty.

Laughlin wrote:

The term "ghetto" has become such a common term in everyday language, it is hard to determine what we really mean when use the term. Even urban scholars are guilty of overusing and under-defining the term "ghetto." Many scholars use the term "ghetto" to describe a geographic area, such as a neighborhood or census tract that is characterized as having a high concentration of households in poverty as well as a high concentration of blacks, or any other racial/ethnic minority group. General public use of the term "ghetto" tends to assume such areas characterized by crime, slackers, Chinese take-out restaurants, store front churches, poverty, and racial/ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, for many individuals, their image of a "ghetto" is less from actual experience but influenced by the popular media.

... Clearly, we need a more sophisticated approach to how we classify the social and economic conditions of urban neighborhoods; one that does not demoralize a community and its residents. The current use of the term "ghetto" glosses over the real issues facing urban communities and allows individuals to hide behind racist and classist assumptions instead of engaging in productive conversations and actions. More importantly, it is on us to change or abandon the term "ghetto" because the cultural and ideological construction of the term has often shaped public policy. Stereotypes and sweeping generalizations should not be the basis for reform. The problems we face in urban America are complex and should be treated as such.

The Webster's New World College Dictionary defines "ghetto" as such: 1. in certain European cities, a section to which Jews were formerly restricted 2. any section of a city in which many members of some minority group live, or to which they are restricted as by economic pressure or social discrimination.

But the Urban Dictionary, a dictionary of slang written by its online users, offers several adjectival meanings as well. Among them: 1. urban; of or relating to (inner) city life 2. poor; of or relating to the poor life 3. jury-rigged, improvised, or home-made (usually with extremely cheap or sub-standard components), yet still deserving of an odd sense of respect from ghetto dwellers and non-ghetto dwellers alike (used in a sentence: "A TV Guide duct-taped to a 4 foot stick?! That's one hella ghetto 'mote control!").

The term, as noun and adjective, has come to be used in many ways and contexts: Frederick L. McKissack wrote an article in the Progressive in 1998 about the "cyberghetto," describing the technology gap that has left far fewer minorities with access to the Internet than their white counterparts. Albums by the former Master P include The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me, Ghetto D, Ghetto Postage, and Ghetto Bill.

Recently, Belva Davis, blogging in the San Francisco Chronicle, recounted the controversy over the word's use in a June New York magazine story on the Obamas' decision to vacation in Martha's Vineyard, long a favorite spot for the black elite. One anonymous long-time islander was quoted as questioning Michelle Obama's place there, "calling her a 'ghetto girl,' one who did not belong in the august company of the regulars," Davis wrote.

But there was more: Davis' friend, Abigail McGrath, also a Vineyard resident, designed a T-shirt listing the names of a few dozen well-known women, from Rosa Parks and Sally Hemmings to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Oprah Winfrey, that declares: "GHETTO GIRLS ROCK. Life's not about where you're from; it's where you're going." It's supposedly on sale on the Vineyard now.

Writing a few years back at theblackcommentator.com, Harold M. Clemens called "ghetto" the "new N-word." "What does it mean to act 'suburban,' if acting 'ghetto' means unruly?" he asked.

He blogs at ghettouprising.

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  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Ghetto used as an adjective is a racist term, just like the n word. The fact that ignorant people of all races use it makes no difference - it's still a racist term.

    & that has to be the most ghastly painting I've ever seen. Her poor neighbors must live in horror. Can't they force her to paint over that atrocity?

  • Q™

    Angry Al, I agree with you. It is the person using the word that makes is a racist term. There were Jewish ghettos, Irish ghettos, Mexican ghettos (or are they called barrios), etc. A ghetto could simply be an area where a high concentration of one ethnic group live. However, because of other societal ills like poverty, joblessness, crime, etc., a negative connotation arises that tends to oversimplify the meaning.

    Chevy Chase, Georgetown, and South Riding are ghettos by definition. They just don't have the societal ills associated with them.

  • Downtown rez

    What am I to make of the phrase "Ghetto Fabulous".
    I kinda like that mural. It seems to me a derivative of many pop-art traditions.

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