Jan 18, 2009

That's Ghetto

A few years ago a debate erupted in one of my classes. This debate began when a white male student described something in particular as "ghetto." An African American woman took offense and vocalized her displeasure with his use of this term; a term that she considered an inappropriate utterance. She stated that, to her, the use of the word was racist. In response, the male student said that because he lived in the area surrounding USC, an area appropriately described as a "ghetto," that he felt as though he was justified in using the term. Others jumped in and soon the sparks began to fly. Like the good provocateur that I am, I let them all argue it out for a few minutes before I jumped in to maximize this especially teachable moment.

I was reminded of this argument the other day when I read about Kathleen Leavey the top lawyer for my city, Detroit, who resigned when a controversy evolved after she described the city's 36th District Court as "ghetto." Leavey, a white attorney in the nation's blackest city, made a comment that many considered offensive. Interim Detroit mayor Ken Cockrel called the remark "unacceptable."

Is "ghetto" the new n-word? The term itself supposedly dates back to 14th century Venice, Italy and was used to describe the walled off and gated section of the city where Jews where forced to live. The evolution of this term in America, certainly in the last 40 years, often implies an area defined by black poverty.

For someone to assume that ghetto is a racist term is to assume that poverty is endemic to blackness. In spite of countless hip hop songs and videos that have turned the "ghetto" into something to be envied over the last 20 years, what this African American student unconsciously assumed in her statement was that blackness is synonymous with being poor. While I know what people mean when they call something "ghetto" the term is a class specific term more so than it is racial. Yet in a climate where some right wing idiots call minimal government incursion into the financial markets "socialism" it is obvious that we as a society don't even begin to know to how to discuss issues of class.

On the other hand, someone living in the "ghetto" that surrounds the university while they are a student is certainly not the same thing as having been born and raised in the ghetto because that's the best that your family could afford. This student lived in the ghetto by choice because it was convenient to the university, not because his parents were poor and confined to live in squalor due to their lack of funds.

Debates about the appropriate use of the n-word have abounded for a long time now. I recently turned down a very persistent producer from Dr. Phil who wanted me to be on an episode of their show to debate the word. Though I have weighed in on the topic several times over the years, I am tired of talking about it by now. Honestly, it's not a big deal to me. I try to stay M.O.B. as it were and being engaging in such a dated conversation has nothing to do with gettin' money, so I now avoid this conversation like the plague. I really could care less. Though I do recognize that this term is still a very sensitive subject for many, it is not for me. As I have said time and again, I love the word "nigga"! It is my favorite word in the English language because no other word conjures up so much confusion, animosity, hand wringing, weeping, or gnashing of teeth. It's not the word, it's what the word represents that's the issue, but people are fixated on symbols, often times at the expense of substance.

While "nigga" doesn't offend me in the abstract, I do understand why many remain offended by it's usage, in spite of my liberal views on the topic. "Ghetto" is a different story altogether though. To call someone or something ghetto is to say raggedy, trifling, or less than up to par. Anyone who assumes that only black people are "ghetto" is a damn fool. The word is about lower class sensibilities, be it black, white, Latino, etc. People tend to use the metaphor of the "trailer park" when referring to whiteness and poverty, but regardless of the term in question, it is the class component that drives these words and metaphors; though I am not naive enough to think that the word "ghetto" hasn't been racialized.

I am not a language cop and I have no need to tell people what to say. But I think we need to recognize that simply because something is not necessarily wrong, it doesn't mean that you need to say it. What often gets lost in conversations like these is the point that the usage of certain words in a particular context may indeed be insensitive. The lack of sensitivity to the particular concerns of the environment that you are speaking in is often where the offense begins. The 36th District Court in Detroit is "ghetto" as is Detroit itself. That's not a diss, that's being real. I can stay this because I put on for my city and can feel Detroit in every ounce of my being; good, bad, and ugly. But my point here is that someone like Kathleen Leavey should think twice before uttering such a word in a predominately black city where the racial tensions are always an integral part of the overall fabric. I don't think her comment was racist, but it was certainly not intelligent either.

When controversies like this over the appropriate use of certain words come up, people often turn it into a debate about free speech. To suggest that someone cannot use a particular word is to imply a certain censorship in this context. Such an argument denies the role that context plays in the words that are spoken. I mean, I believe in the right to free speech as much as the next person, but I'm not going to go into a redneck bar and start yelling "cracker" at the top of my lungs just because I am free to do so.

Perhaps we shouldn't look at this as a free speech issue, but instead we should think about it as an issue of civility and decorum. There is something to be said for being considerate, respectful, and appropriate. All things lawful are not always expedient. In other words, think before you speak or else risk putting your foot in your mouth and then having to pay the consequences.

All this talk about the ghetto made me think of the late great Donny Hathaway's ruminations on the topic. Dig it...

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn't reach back for that Oaktown pimp Too Short's flip of Hathaway's original joint with his own version of The Ghetto from 1990.

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