“That’s so ghetto…”
Enough already. Or, at least, I’ve had enough already! This is a letter to all of the people that have uttered words to that effect or something similar (myself included) and who have not stopped to think about exactly what is coming out of their mouths. Why is this burning up my self-righteous brainwaves today? Well….let’s just say that this past week, I’ve heard three different people, who have no business using the term, throw it around rather casually. Are we still in high school people? C’mon. I had this strange naivete that perhaps we had grown up, and with it, our collective vocabulary, but apparently that was wishful thinking.
Let’s put aside for the moment the historical ramifications of the word “ghetto” and how it was (and is) a social condition that was (and is) purposefully used to divide, separate and wall off certain types of people from the rest of society, including Jews and, more recently, poor black and brown people. That alone should be reason enough to give pause to throwing around the term so casually. However, I’m sure that most people don’t think about that historical context when they describe a person, a party, a car, a pair of pants, or even something as insignificant as a wobbly table as “ghetto.” Instead, it is clearly meant to identify someone or something as being deficient…lacking…broken…ignorant….bad. When one says this table is “ghetto,” it’s meant to signify that it’s broken…like all the tables in the actual ghetto apparently. How is it possible to not see how insulting and condescending that actually is? First, for the fact that not all tables in the ghetto are actually broken or deficient, and, secondly, if they are, it’s likely because the person doesn’t have the same resources to get a new one.
“Ghetto” also has racial overtones, especially in today’s modern context. I hate going there, but I also think one of the major issues I have with the use of the term, is that, in addition to it being insensitive towards poor people in general, it’s also a not so veiled way of referencing black and brown poor people in particular. Those pants with the writing on their butt? That’s so ghetto. You know why? Because (poor) black people wear pants with writing on the butt. I find it problematic that privileged black people use the term to frequently distinguish themselves from our poorer brethren. But I also cringe when people who aren’t black or brown refer to things as “ghetto” because it teeters way too close to the edge of an unconscious form of racism for my comfort level.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge that the flip side of “ghetto” is “white trash” which, to be fair and completely honest, I have used in the (not so distant) past, is similarly insensitive and problematic and should probably also be stricken from the vocabulary. A lot of people use it, and it really is a way of talking down about poor white people. So, while race is certainly an issue here, I tend to think that class is potentially more at play.
And the worst part of all of this to me, is that we privileged people – White, Black, Brown, Asian, whatever – laugh about things being “ghetto” (or “white trash”). Because it’s “funny.” Hilarious in fact. So while poor people are getting their asses kicked on the regular, instead of addressing the fact that they are getting their asses kicked on the regular, people privileged enough to not be in a similar situation are essentially insulting each other by calling each other poor…and by extension, ignorant, deficient, and broken? So, now we are in the business of making fun of poor people for not being able to buy new, better stuff?
This is not an apologia for the things that do actually need to change in poor communities. As with any community, including affluent ones, improvements are necessary and should be pursued. But, when someone can explain to me how we privileged people making fun of the things in poorer communities that we deem are deficient is productive, please clue me in. It would be different if we privileged people even had an inkling of what the ghetto or a trailer park was about. Lived it. Understood it. And most importantly, addressed it, including our roles in perpetuating it. It wouldn’t make it cool in my book, but, at least, one could claim that we privileged people would have more agency over the usage of the term. Then again, if we privileged people actually did live and understand it, perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to characterize something as “ghetto” in the first place?