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.