Originally Published Nov. 15, 2006
Last week I was riding with a friend and his wife and they were talking about Halloween. She was upset because there were not any kids that came to their apartment for candy. Her husband laughed and said that she thinks the neighborhood they live in is ghetto.
She is afraid to jog, at anytime of the day, because she thinks it is ghetto. Now, I also live in this neighborhood in West Los Angeles and I admit there are some car intrusions every once and a while, but the way she used the term “ghetto” and her being from Orange County sparked indignation and curiosity.
The neighborhood is full of UCLA students and young adults. I was indignant because I grew up poor and “ghetto” and curious because I wanted to pay more attention to the use of this word and how it was pejoratively applied by people fortunate enough to grow up middle class or better, but also by those who came from the ghetto and buy into the word’s misuse and the insinuations behind it.
The term ghetto, which derives from Italian roots and has been applied to different ethnic groups, is packed in certain places, such as Jews, the Irish, blacks, latinos and even poor whites. It used to be a term strictly meaning the congregating of these groups in a certain neighborhood.
Dictionary.com’s main definition of the word is, “A section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures or hardships.”
But the term has evolved into a negative yet popular word with serious racist and elitist overtones. Now, not everyone who uses the word means any harm.
Most do not even think deeply about what “ghetto” implies but if anyone thinks about it, it usually applies to the poor, African-American and Latino inner-city neighborhoods and the people from them and anything below the status quo’s expectation.
This pervades through all facets of life from neighborhoods to cars, clothes, speech, music and others.
Case in point: I have waves in my hair-when it is low. So I wear a wave-cap, otherwise known as a doo-rag, over my head. Sometimes I go outside with it on, because my hair is still drying and the moisturizer I use to keep it neat works well with it to keep the waves shiny and nice. People who have never seen me with it on always say one of two things: “Why are you looking like a thug?” Or “Why do you look so ghetto?”
Now I admit, a lot of it is the propaganda of the rappers and musicians who are in the music videos or the other deceptive media images that promote stereotypes, but it is annoying.
It is also racist because the wave-cap has been associated with ghetto for the black people as a whole as opposed to a part of the culture.
People do not understand that just because a black man wears baggy jeans, a wave cap or a hat to the side does not mean he is a thug or ghetto and he is going to hurt you if you are in the parking lot alone.
I know that when I see other blacks on the street, but a lot of people cannot distinguish between a criminal and a black man in the urban culture.
And I understand that some people from the inner city do have idiosyncrasies and behavioral patterns that are not conducive to a safe and thriving society.
I admit that.
But not all people from the inner city exhibit and display the mores or deviances that they have unfairly been labeled with, just like those who have grown up in the suburbs are not all shallow, unsympathetic and racist or elitist snobs.
But people have been so saturated by the negative stereotypical images of blacks in the media that the words ghetto and black have become synonymous.
Even some blacks buy into the ignorance. About a month ago I was out with a bunch of friends at a shopping plaza in Ladera Heights.
My friend’s girl had to go get food and he told her to walk through the parking lot and get it and he would wait for her.
Now, she’s black, but she replied sarcastically, “Yeah, so I can get shot.” My friend who is latino, said “Baby we are in Ladera Heights.”
For those of you that do not know, Ladera Heights has been tagged the black Beverly Hills.
She, growing up in suburban San Diego, considered the area ghetto – blacks and ghetto have become synonymous despite the million- dollar houses around.
Despite the blacks with great jobs, great cars and all the other paraphernalia that equates to success these days, she still considered it ghetto.
I shook my head, because she was so removed from the truth, but she represents a lot of the privileged who grow up in these suburban white communities without seeing homeless people, without seeing that many people from a different skin color and actually knowing them intimately, who think that everything sub-suburbia is ghetto, low-class and breeding ground for everything evil and immoral.
And so I have decided to take the word out of my vocabulary, except in contextual moments when appropriate.
People in general should start thinking about what they really mean when they say it. They should start asking themselves why they think something is ghetto. Is it based on an elitist bias?
I suggest people start educating themselves about people and cultures they can not identify with before using a word that is really a code word equivalent to those other words that people use to describe people of a certain culture, race or class that are not appropriate and learn how to relate, harmonize and appreciate those difference so that life could be a little more enriching and less annoying for those of us growing up without a spoon in our mouths.