'Ghetto' as Pejorative.

Ta-Nehisi absolutely nails it:

What I know about “inner city blacks,” of those who “act ghetto,” is the same as what I lately came to know about about suburban whites, about Puerto-Rican New Yorkers, about Ivy Leauge graduates, about gay conservatives, and Israeli-Americans. That they are all different from us all and from each other, that they deserve to be treated with the same nuance, with the same soft touch, with the same eye for complexity and dimension that you’d want for your own family in friends.

My partner Kenyatta says that one of the things that convinced her to go to Howard was a habit she observed among some of her white friends. She was a smart girl, well-spoken and kind. Sometimes when she’d gotten close to a white girl at her school, the girl would make some casually prejudice remark about black people and then say, “But you’re not black.” The point being that, despite Kenyatta darkness, what they saw as “black” was everything that she was not. She talks about how she initially took this as a compliment, and then she realized the true insidiousness within it–that had they exchanged no words, said white friend would have drawn the same conclusions about her.

In that same spirit, I think people who meet and talk to me, who read this blog don’t think of me as “ghetto.” But I’m not sure they’d think the same if they saw me at 8 A.M. on Lenox Ave, rocking the black hoodie and grey New Balance, on my way to the Associated. Ghetto, in its most unironic usage, is a word for people you don’t know. It’s [a] word that allows you to erase individuals and create boxes. It’s true that I was different than most of my friends–but most of my friends were different from my friends. All people, at their core, ultimately are. A man has to stand for those who intimately loved him and intimately hated him, for those whose stench he was raised amongst. They get to be human [too].

This is spot on, and it’s such a touchy subject for me that I have a hard time summoning enough dispassion to talk about it most times. I grew up in the hood, raised by a single mother who was on welfare for a stretch. I’ve only seen my father a handful of times in my life; if I bumped into him on the street, I certainly wouldn’t recognize him. My grandmother, mother, aunts and cousins all lived in the projects during their lives. My family has more than a few teenage/unmarried mothers and high school dropouts. There were bullet casings on the court I learned to play ball on. Shootings were not uncommon, especially in the summer. And so on. This is a pretty easy narrative to sell, if you really want to spin it that way.

But it’s a reductive one. None of the people in my fam or whom I grew up with stopped being people worthy of my respect because their names were “hard to pronounce,” or because they had kids and dropped out of high school, or any other isolated fact of their lives or their circumstances. Like Kenyatta, I got the but-you’re-not-that-way thing a lot, as if that was some kind of badge of honor, as if they even knew the people who were that way well enough to designate them as that way, and just that way.

“Ghetto” as an epithet takes those things, and reduces people to those things. It makes these supposed deficiencies their entire stories.

UPDATE: OO weighs in:

I’m not sure that even this gets at what is wrong with the epithet. What’s wrong with it is that it blames blacks for what is in fact largely constituted by structural oppression and exploitation. Its not a matter of reducing people to their deficiencies; its a matter of failing to engage the causes and mechanisms of those deficiencies. Another way of putting it is that the “ghetto” epithet is a study in how the ruling class kills two birds with one stone: first, they refuse their own agency in the articulation of structural racism; second, they kneecap the poor’s agency by crippling them with shame, guilt and contempt.

Right. Inherent in the “ghetto” stereotype is the idea the problems of the black underclass are primarily about personal moral failings; those people are beyond help, those people cannot help themselves. But all stereotypes exist to reinforce power relations. If you buy the idea that women are not rational enough to make important decisions and so fragile that they need to be protected, you can justify denying them the franchise or drivers’ licenses or sexual agency or whatever else. If you buy that Jews are  unscrupulous, you can justify discriminating  against them in hiring or college admissions, like the Ivy League did. And so on.

“Ghetto” is just an update of the “shiftless, morally bankrupt” stereotype that has always been used to justify discrimination against black people. I understand why folks want to defensively distance themselves from being lumped into that stereotype, but we should be calling bullshit on the stereotype itself — not merely shifting its focus to the black underclass.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

20 comments to 'Ghetto' as Pejorative.

  • this is an excellent post–i cringe whenever someone says someone (or in many cases something) is “ghetto” and i tell them i find it offensive. it’s just a category that people lump other people into that they think fits that “image.” but it white-washes everything–it doesn’t address the why’s or the how’s, and it effectively erases any semblance of individuality.

  • OO

    G.D: ““Ghetto” as an epithet takes those things, and reduces people to those things. It makes these supposed deficiencies their entire stories.”

    I’m not sure that even this gets at what is wrong with the epithet. What’s wrong with it is that it blames blacks for what is in fact largely constituted by structural oppression and exploitation. Its not a matter of reducing people to their deficiencies; its a matter of failing to engage the causes and mechanisms of those deficiencies. Another way of putting it is that the “ghetto” epithet is a study in how the ruling class kills two birds with one stone: first, they refuse their own agency in the articulation of structural racism; second, they kneecap the poor’s agency by crippling them with shame, guilt and contempt.

  • OO

    Thanks, GD. Excellent blog.

  • Callaloo

    Nice post….its a shame its so short.

  • z7evenpetalz

    Great post! My good friend Harold Clemens touched on that a while back on the the Black Commentator…..http://www.blackcommentator.com/132/132_guest_ghetto.html

  • GD, two things pop to my mind:

    Just cause I got to reread some Patricia Hill Collins recently, allow me to play devils advo and point out that reductiveness, in and of itself, is not bad exactly, that it can be used as a sign of strength and collective identity. Ghetto has negative connotations, but should we really throw out terms like ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘women’, which all carry a baggage that can effectively mean something quite different than the supposedly nuetral meaning of each word? Furthermore, should the goal be to treat people AS individuals, rather than to respect them AS a group, because individuality itself is a construct of a white, imperialist, patriarchal, capitalist society?

    Not that I believe this stuff, I am just getting some Black Radical Feminism on to take the critique further.

    The second thing that I wonder about is the “But you’re (sp) not black” comment (Mebbe I should say this on Ta-Nehisi’s blog actually), which yeah speaks to privelage and (even) racism, but I get similar comments like that (which stray far more into “credit to your race”), both inside and outside of the US, and it can lead to a subversion of racism. So in China, when I am the best foreigner (white person) my friends have ever met, that I am not like those other foreigners, its whatev. Same thing when my friends in the US tell me that I am not like those other Latinos. In Argentina I am not like those other Gringos apparently. Since I am usually the only Other in any particular group and have been so for all my life, I basically have to make sure that, at some level, people can see the Other as fully human, as an individual, that we are not all alike, that maybe the friends I meet might extend the benefit of the doubt to the NEXT Other (who I am always working for). It might not be my job to educate people (which is the familiar refrain about privelaged groups that I get), but there should be room for people who WANT to do so, even if Problematic (on a lot of levels). I dunno, maybe I am overthinking this.

  • dilettante

    It seems to be a first wave and 2nd wave use of ‘ghetto’, among the first wave it ALWAYS meant a put down on black Americans because black= poor= ghetto and that’s what hip hop/rap self promoted. The second wave I think just became part of (all)American slang–>some one else pointed this out on Ta-Nehisi’s blog …broke pencil: “this pencil is so GHETTO”. In the first wave the racial tinge was always there with the uniquely American race/SES overlay; a way to turn the knife without really being overt. In a conversation a while ago about shopping with a visiting white American co-worker & a (white) British guy. The girl made a comment about ghetto but pricey fashion. The British person chimed in with the Chav (e.g. thug) image Burberry (BBC news link)had to fight. I could see her agitation because the British guy wasn’t picking up on the racial part of it,as a “Chav /Yob /or Hoodie” is very likely a white person. But there was no way for her to put too fine of a point on it.

    I’ve just met a new American associate who uses the term causally, but I’m sure she’s too old to use it in it’s second wave sense, it could be she thinks its just being “down with the kids”, but at another level I feel its a way that person is consciously/unconsciously(?) attempting to grandfather in a difference that would be more prominent if we were both back in the states.

    I’m not as fussed about this as an adult now, but growing up, in college, early in my career I always ran into someone who felt it imperative to know exactly where I lived/grew up etc. It had nothing to do with knowing me or curiosity about a region, but to force me to “confess” my ghetto roots. On a related tangent; what does it say when again,some one who is also older than what I call the wave 2 demo/ who makes a a valid observation about the “dominant mommy culture” presented in MSM is affluent and mostly white. She promptly follows that up with a post about;… The Ghetto Rattle, an on the fly toy she made to calm a child. I bet she would have laid a grade A double yolk egg if a white person posted the same article on the blog she contributes to. So go figure.

  • Kevin M.

    Ok, I like this!

  • I really appreciate the post and am too often irritated when ppl both black or white or any one else uses ghetto to refrence a person, word, action or object but am often left lacking a good articulation of why I am irritated and/or offended. This line was a beautiful articulation of what I’m always trying to say…

    “Ghetto, in its most unironic usage, is a word for people you don’t know. It’s [a] word that allows you to erase individuals and create boxes.”

    peace
    bana

  • Melanie

    I just accidently came across this blog while searching google. This is an interesting perspective and has made me a little more aware of culture insensitivy. Thanks.

  • Double O: i sort of took what you’d written as a given; we discuss that stuff around here quite a bit, and I didn’t want to belabor the point (“there goes GD talking about class and privilege again!”).

    But they’re great points, regardless. Thanks.

  • thanks. don’t be a stranger.

  • OO

    Hi Winslowarab,

    I’m not sure that an analytical dichotomy that pits individuals against groups is the most helpful. It should be possible to treat people as individuals AND as belonging to certain groups. What is key, in giving an account of an individual and a group, is how these individuals and how these groups came about; are contextually performed; and, perhaps, are likely to become. The problem with reductionism is the claim that an individual or a group has an essential core; an essential core that is out of history and that is eternal.

    Note that that does not mean that certain structures cannot bring about similar behavioral characteristics or similar ideological lines of thought among a group of people. Structures can and do often bring about the emergence of certain groups (individuals who share certain similar or analogous experiences or states of being). Thus it is not wrong to identify a certain person as interpellated by or belonging to a certain group. What is wrong is: i) to think that she “naturally” belongs to the group, as if the group is not itself a construct; ii) that she only belongs to the group, as if she does not belong to multiple groups — reductionism; iii) that she is a superhuman agent who can totally determine the choice of which group to belong to.

    The same critique applies as well to groups. Again, groups emerge from complex processes. Moreover, no group is a monolith: within each group, there is considerable struggles over identity and power. Lastly, groups change — the category “black” today is not the same category “black” of the 19th century. Also, the category “black” in the U.S. is not the same category “black” in, say, South Africa.

    You asked: “Furthermore, should the goal be to treat people AS individuals, rather than to respect them AS a group, because individuality itself is a construct of a white, imperialist, patriarchal, capitalist society?”

    A recognition of people “as individuals” is not the same thing as the ideology of individualism. One is a recognition of respect, even love; the other is a narcissistic refusal to appreciate Otherness.

    About your last point: From the social science I’ve read about these things, the “you are not black” or “not Gringo” comments are more often than not desperate attempts to cling on to a stereotype that has just been disconfirmed when a person actually experiences a real, live human being belonging to an out/enemy group. Often that means that the person treated as the exception gets certain privileges denied the rest of the group.

  • The second thing that I wonder about is the “But you’re (sp) not black” comment (Mebbe I should say this on Ta-Nehisi’s blog actually), which yeah speaks to privelage and (even) racism, but I get similar comments like that (which stray far more into “credit to your race”), both inside and outside of the US, and it can lead to a subversion of racism.

    How does that work exactly? that whole ‘credit to your race’ seems like an end-around, a way to hold individuals who don’t conform to that stereotype out as exceptions. Instead of disabusing someone of the validity of the stereotype itself.

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