I never realized how racially charged the word “ghetto” was until I had a couple of cringe-worthy experiences recently. After witnessing a few people use the terms “ghetto” and “ratchet” to describe people of color or things associated with people of color I realized how problematic – even dangerous – the terminology was on a number of levels.
Growing up, I heard these words a lot – especially among people of color. Generally, ghetto was used to describe something that wasn’t legit or authentic, like a knockoff designer handbag you’d buy in Chinatown. I never thought much of it and as a result, I’d occasionally use it myself from time to time … until 2016.
A lot went down in 2016. I moved in with my wonderful roommate/college best friend, who’s incredibly good at calling things out for what they are and keeping me in check. Donald Trump was elected president and white people finally started getting called out for casually using the word “ghetto.” In 2016, Jamie Fox called out film director Quentin Tarantino for using the word “ghetto” as a derogatory dig at the Golden Globes. “Ennio Morricone … is my favorite composer, I don’t mean movie composer – that ghetto. I’m talking about Mozart, I’m talking about Beethoven, I’m talking about Schubert. That’s who I’m talking about.” Fox got back on stage and repeated the word “ghetto,” shaking his head and just like that it was clear to everyone in the audience that “ghetto” wasn’t exactly the best word choice.
Later that year, Donald Trump, who was the Republican presidential nominee at the time, used the term while at a campaign rally in Ohio. While discussing how he had planned to tackle issues facing low-income African Americans, Trump referred to inner city neighborhoods that consist of predominately African American and Latino communities as “ghettos.”
“And we’re going to work on our ghettos, are in so the, you take a look at what’s going on where you have pockets of, areas of land where you have the inner cities and you have so many things, so many problems,” he rambled. This is the same man who would later go on to refer to Haiti and numerous nations in Africa as “shithole countries.”
So is the word “ghetto” racist? It all depends on the context in which it’s used and I learned that the hard way. In 2016, I briefly and casually dated a white American man who thought it was cute to tell me that he loved my accent. This was the second white dude who made a point to bring up my “so-called” Latina accent.
“I love your Latina accent and I love when I hear you speak Spanglish with other Latinas – it’s so adorable and ghetto.”
“Ghetto?” I asked. “What makes my Latina accent ghetto? I don’t even use slang words. Not in English and not in Spanish – so what’s ghetto about it?”
He went on to explain how the Latina accent in general just gave off a very “ghetto” and Urban vibe to him that he couldn’t quite put into words but totally digged. He was dumped shortly after. It was the first time I had personally experienced someone using that word in a way that felt uncomfortable. It was discriminatory and most definitely racially charged.
Let’s begin by breaking down the origins of the term “ghetto.” The word “ghetto” refers to “a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominately by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.” On Urban Dictionary the word is defined as “an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city, usually troubled by a disproportionately large amount of crime,” “urban; of or relating to (inner) city life, “poor; of our relating to the poor life.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was originally used to describe inner cities neighborhoods in Europe that were created to restrict Jewish communities.
Because the term was originally used to describe marginalized groups or areas where marginalized groups resided, and because it’s still so often associated with things like poverty, crime, cheap, and inauthentic things, it’s easy to see why someone would consider a word like this to be offensive, because it often times sounds like a racial insult.
I can’t tell you how many WOC have expressed to me that they’ve stopped wearing hoop earrings or applying gel to their baby hairs out of fear of being described as “ghetto.” I’ve heard folks referring to black hairstyles such as box braids, cornrows, and dreads as ghetto. And that foolish white boy I dated wasn’t the first one I’ve heard refer to Spanish accents or Spanglish words as “ghetto” either and that’s because the word “ghetto” far too often used used to describe physical traits, style, or even behavior associated with people of color. This is where it becomes harmful and dangerous because it implies that everything associated with black and brown bodies and their lifestyles are “low-class,” “unsophisticated”, “unrefined” and “insignificant.
“The word is often used pejoratively to describe low-income African Americans, of their presumed forms of behavior, dress, and speech,” Mario Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University told BBC News. “Some also use it more generically to describe people to attitudes they believe to be unsophisticated.”
This is not to say that every time someone says the word ghetto they are using it in a racially rhetoric way. Words change and evolve over time. But it’s hard not to take it that way when the word (at least in the United States) is still so heavily associated with lower-income African Americans and Latinos. Think about is this way, words like “ghetto” and now “rachet” (more commonly used today) are often – if not always – used to imply that something or someone is inferior. So when someone uses it to describe a specific group, community or characteristics or traits associated with that group or community, it insinuates that those people are inferior. If that’s not racist – I don’t know what is.