That is sooooo ghetto…NOT!

Oh, how I hate that phrase. Some where along the line the word ghetto has grown from being a word used to describe a slum area in a city primarily occupied by minorities to a catch phrase for describing anything that folks deem to be lower class. Frankly it pisses me off. Recently an acquaintance of mine referred to her neighborhood as being ghetto, problem is she lives in Maine. Yes, we have some areas of low income folks but by and large these areas are packed full of white folks after all this is Maine. Yes some of these areas are a tad rough by the standards of what folks generally think of when Maine comes to mind but I would be hard pressed to say there are any ghettos in Maine. Sorry folks.

See, I am from Chicago and while I grew up working class I can honestly we say we never lived in any area that one might deem a ghetto by the official and technical definition of ghetto. However families being what they are, I did have some family members who lived in what definitely could be called a ghetto. My first images of visiting these family members start at about age 5. My mother was not raised by her mother who left her when she was 8 months old, my mother didn’t officially meet her mother again until she was 16 and she spent many years trying to forge a relationship with her mother and 7 half siblings.

During her early and mid twenties my Mum spent a great deal of time trying to connect with her birth family and that required us visiting them and well they lived in the now gone Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s south side. The Robert Taylor Projects along with the Cabrini Green Housing projects were some of the worse housing projects in the country.  The place was like a giant concrete jungle, it was not safe for outsiders to just wander in unless they wanted to go out in a body bag, thankfully my mother’s brothers were well respected gangbangers so that kept us safe along with the fact when we got off the el stop nearest to the projects there was always someone waiting to pick us up. One of the things I remember from this period in time is that my father rarely made the trek to visit my mother’s family…to this day I don’t know why.

One of the things I remember most about these visits was fear, entering the building that her family lived in was scary, it was a dark place, it alternated between smelling like an overripe sewer and a urinal. The times the elevator actually worked, it had one bare bulb and smelled like pure piss. Even at 5 I knew this was not a safe place. Yet as soon as we entered my mother’s birth mother’s actual apartment it was like night and day. Well decorated and beautiful, no doubt filled with items obtained through my uncle’s ill gotten gains. I also remember that the food was amazing, some of what we now call soul food.

Occasionally younger cousins would insist I play with them in the hallway and I remembering being afraid. Especially when we played hide and seek, the only bright spot to playing with the cousins was the visit to the candy lady. That would be the lady a few doors down from my relatives who sold candy, pickles and snow cones from her apartment. To this day that still amazes me as I have never seen that any place outside of the ghetto. In part because in many true ghettos it’s not safe for kids to venture out to the local convenience stores on their own, because danger lurks at every turn. These visits stopped around the time my brother was born.

Yet as an adult having chosen to work with the less fortunate sometimes my work in Chicago called for me to travel to areas that were well…ghettos. Last time was about 10 years or so when I had a training to attend on the west side of Chicago and let’s just say it was an experience. Cabs do not go to such areas I learned when I tried to get a cab and at the lunch break a group of us ventured to the only sit down eatery in the area where our transaction for fried chicken at KFC was conducted through bullet proof glass. I remember heading home on the bus after two days of training thinking about how hopeless it must feel to live in an area where transactions must be conducted through glass. Think about that.

My experiences both as a child and as an adult in venturing into true ghettos left me with a very clear definition of what a ghetto is and living in an apartment in Maine is not a ghetto. By and large in Maine even the rough areas are relatively close to nature. This particular area that was called a ghetto is about a 10 minute drive to the ocean, on a good night you can smell the ocean. I can assure you in most true ghettos (outside of perhaps LA) you won’t be smelling an ocean, instead you will smell the stench of hopelessness mixed in with piss.

While I work with people who at times have many of the same issues that my clients in Chicago had, it’s still different here. People are free to leave their houses; their homes are not transformed into virtual forts because getting in and out involves taking your life into your hands. While pockets of hopelessness now exist all across this nation, the fact is to call your area a ghetto trivializes the lives of those who really are living in a ghetto and in some cases to claim such language in my opinion speaks to having privilege that true ghetto dwellers do not.

So if you are one of those folks who like to use the word ghetto and you are using it for any reason other than describing a real ghetto, please find another word. Tacky is a good start and you won’t get any resistance from me.

25 thoughts on “That is sooooo ghetto…NOT!

  1. Good post, and always nice to put things in perspective.

    (Love the new layout, hon…one thing you might want to do, if the widget management allows you to, is to set your “archives” in the sidebar to be a drop-down menu so that it doesn’t take up as much space.)

  2. Cool blog and congrats on being freshly pressed.

    I just am annoyed when people use the term ghetto to describe black people. They should really look the word up in an old dictionary to see where it came from.

    The word tacky has a good ring to it. I think I’ll use it more often to describe things. lol

    When I saw your name blackgirlinmaine, I thought, is this my sister?!?? My sister attended Bates College in Maine. I still can’t figure out why. Thank God she is back home. Maine is not for me. She had a good time there though.
    Whatever floats your boat.
    : )

  3. Great post. Very informative and you certainly showed that lot out there! My sister goes to university where there are tonnes of rich people and when they find out where she’s from they call it a ghetto, but it’s not, and we only moved out because the house was too small once I was born. It annoys me too.

  4. I’m guilty. Sometimes I say something is “so ghetto” when it’s really not at all. I will try to be more mindful from now on.

    One thing I might suggest is just recognizing that language changes as does the context in which people use certain words/phrases. It evolves, just as we do.

    That being said, if using the phrase “that’s so ghetto” offends some people I certainly don’t want to be the offender. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  5. What really stuck in my head and made me think here was the fact that KFC requires bulletproof glass. It’s heartbreaking, really. The fact that people use the term “ghetto” as inappropriately as they use the term “gay” is shameful.

  6. My husband and I joke about the apartment buildings we used to live in as being a part of a “ghetto”. We do of course completely understand that it is in no way a ghetto – it was VERY slightly above slums I would say.

    However, there are locations in every town that very likely could be called a ghetto by the book definition…if the location is densely populated, and is socially and economically depraved, it can be called a ghetto. If you are a group of people who have been segregated or receive stereotyped or biased treatment, you could be part of a ghetto. Ghettos were where Jewish Europeans were forced to reside within a city – the word itself comes from the Italian island where Jews were forced to live in the early 1600s. The word – like so many others – has been modified and changed over time to suit the likes of those who use it. Now it’s acceptable to say something is ghetto to…I don’t know…show that it’s cool? If suburbanite kids realized the living conditions of ANY ghetto, they would likely think twice about glorifying the word. Great post though…this is something that I think about far too much…

  7. Great post! I also get annoyed when people use that term. Ghetto is often times used to describe people as well. In an effort to not label a behavior as ghetto, I started using the word trashy. For example, I think that a woman or man smoking a cigarette with a child on their hip is trashy. What I’ve noticed is that if I say trashy, people automatically assume the person that committed the “trashy” behavior was white. I find it sad that certain demeaning terms have come to be associated with different races.

    Again, great post. Congrats on FP!

  8. Good post and congrats on bring FP’d.

    I did have a laugh when you referred to mother’s brothers as “well repected gangbangers.” I guess everything has a professional aspect to it.

    Cheers!

  9. I grew up for 20 something years in the Queensbridge Housing projects in NY so I definitely know what ghetto is. Bless you for trying to snap people back into reality regarding what they’re referring to. It’s very similar to all these little tennybopper wannabes you see parading around with their over-sized clothes, flat brimmed caps with the price tags still on and chunky 3 sizes too big sneakers posing like they’re “gangsta” and all that. It’s just really sad because if they ever really encountered anything truly “gangsta” they’d crap their $200 dollar pants.

    Cheers and my apologies for being frank. It’s a hot button subject for me as well.

  10. Thank you for enlightening us, the general public, on this subject. Thank you for presenting the right perspective for using the word “ghetto”. The poverty and heartbreak of those living in a ghetto should make it obvious that using this word playfully discounts the horror of it and is cruel. We need to care. I will never use the word ghetto again in a trivial way. Kudos to you for calling us down on it. I am sure that no one really meant to trivialize human suffering, but I surely do see your point.

  11. How do you feel about the phrase redneck? It is used in ways that are very divorced from it’s origins as well (like a lot of words out there). The current use of the word ghetto is a pop-culture created allusion to an actual ghetto. The truth is, if you know what people mean when they use a word then the word is serving it’s purpose and being used correctly.

    Crystal

  12. I concur! What bothers me the most about how loosely the term is used, is the fact that it’s so commonly used by people who don’t know the difference. It’s almost like straight people calling bad things “gay”.

  13. Some stories!

    The expression “that’s ghetto” though is to my knowledge pretty much the same thing as “gangsta” and things like that. Don’t people use it to describe something awesome? (which is even more twisted than how you said it was used, but I don’t know, I lived in NJ and been to CA and that’s how they used it)

    Anyways, great entry I love it! 🙂

  14. Absolutely right! There are so many words that lump and stereotype people into one group. This was really insightful and sometimes it’s good to see people getting passionate and frustrated about the right things. I’ve spent time in India working in the slums and it was life changing. I have met the people and faces, the poverty and the lives behind the word ‘ghetto’.
    http://www.meandmybiro.wordpress.com

  15. This is very true. I live in California and pass through neighborhoods like Baldwin Park, Pomona, La Puente, and East LA. It isn’t something to joke about when people deal with shootings at least every week. It isn’t funny to have a helicopter flying over your neighborhood with his light looking for someone. It is fun to see bars on windows and doors on each house of your neighborhood.

    Thank you for posting.

  16. Here! Here! My first 13 years in inner-city Philadelphia and the vast changes to my old neighborhood since moving away are startling. I fear for my aged family members still walking those streets and living, working those areas. I also have a jewish heritage, so the word has double negative connotations – definitely NOT producing a positive! Recently I was foolish enough to mock my husband and myself for doing something so ‘red neck’. We are careless with our words! Thanks for the reminder to think before we speak – and to at least find an edit button in our brains.

  17. Well said! I am so tired of hearing people use it to mean something that usually isn’t even all that tacky. Almost as bad when people say “gay”. Let’s at least attempt to speak using the appropriate terms, people. Congrats on being FP!

  18. Good post Blackgirlinmaine.
    Informative from personal experience, objective from facts and actual events, lovely and honestly written. Where I’m from it’s often trailer trash (the white folk equivalent I guess), but yes it has become something of a pop culture phrase, overused and diminishing in value or strength.
    Best wishes.

  19. Great, great post. I harass my niece for using the word ‘ghetto’ all the time. She’s 15 and has no clue what a real ghetto is, it drives me insane! Congrats on being FP!

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