Kyra Deblaker-Gebhard over on The Hill is Home recounted a run-in she had last weekend near her Capitol Hill home. She exchanged words with a woman who was upset that another car was parked so close to her BMW. Deblaker-Gebhard writes:
… Admittedly, this wasn’t my most shining moment: I immediately jumped to the defense of the parked car’s owner, and not that of the driver irritated with the parking job. I yelled from my window a suggestion: that they not drive into the city if they were worried about their precious import. In return, the driver was quick with the insults, first claiming that she lives in the city (then she should be used to the bumps and bruises a bumper receives, right?); then calling me names; and finally, saying that she would never come back to my ghetto neighborhood again. That’s when I got really angry—she called my neighborhood “ghetto.” After I told her never to come back to the ghetto, she sped off in her BMW and I closed my window and continued to stew in my anger.
The term “ghetto” dates back to describing the neighborhoods to which Jewish Europeans were confined. More recently, it’s been used in the U.S. to describe urban neighborhoods where minority groups live out of economic pressures. But “ghetto” now means a much more than that. Here are five reasons to reconsider using the term:
- Most areas aren’t technically ghettos.
- The popular concept of “the ghetto” is not typically based in reality.
- “Ghetto” is now often used as a negative adjective, not just a neutral noun.
- “Ghetto” has also become shorthand for poor and black.
- It’s a blanket term that carries a lot of weight.
This from a more academic perspective, but scholar Mario Luis Small penned a paper [PDF] arguing that academics should abandon the term to describe urban black poverty, as it is often used. One of his points: not many neighborhoods in the country fit the academic definition of a ghetto that is majority black with few basic amenities, low-income and depopulation. He found only nine zip codes in metro areas that fit the bill.
Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau, has pointed out on Greater Greater Washington that many people use the term based on a litany of assumptions, in large part created by popular media depictions.
… 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. Such characterizations of the “ghetto” communities ignores people who work everyday as nurses, teachers, civil servants or people who maintain lovely gardens, are active in local politics or volunteer.
Users of the term run the risk of mischaracterizing a neighborhood they don’t know much about. Home is the Hill commenter IMGoph wrote in response to Deblaker-Gebhard:
Seriously, though, it irks me to no end to hear people say the same about my neighborhood as well. People who have no idea what Trinidad is like, but they’re quick to pass judgment based on what they might have read in the Post 3 years ago.
Once, Donny Hathaway soulfully crooned “The Ghetto.” Now, saying “That’s so ghetto” has become as commonplace as “That’s so gay,” and both are disparaging remarks. In this case, describing objects as “ghetto” implies inferiority, and calling behavior “ghetto” can infer that everyone living in particular neighborhoods behaves the same. Karen Grigsby Bates wrote on The Root that calling someone ghetto “is intentionally classist.” She continues:
It also assumes that just because one lives in a ghetto, there’s only one way to be or act. As Jesse Jackson liked to intone while on the stump, “I may have been born in the ghetto, but the ghetto was not born in me.” It would be doing a huge disservice to all the people who live in ghettos who get up every day and (Jesse again) “take the early bus” to work to assume that “ghetto” and “lazy” are inextricably linked.
One of the more common dictionary definitions for ghetto is “a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.” But city or not, ghetto has come to be synonymous with poor and black (and given our previous point that “ghetto” carries such negative connotations, this can be insulting).
Locally, we can look to Prince George’s County, a predominately black county that is suburban and rural, not urban. And yet, it doesn’t take much Google hunting to find a litany of references to the D.C.-suburb as being “ghetto” (or having “ghetto parts”). Large swaths of the county do have their fair share of social and economic pressures, but there aren’t many cities there. So much for “quarter of a city.”
People are complex. So describing a chunk of the population with a word that belies that complexity, and has such negative stereotypes attached to it, naturally gives rise to the anger Deblaker-Gebhard wrote about in her initial post. The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates explains:
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 [League] 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.