Monday, December 8, 2008

use "ghetto" as an adjective

"Dudes, that's so ghetto!
Okay, now, just a sec, don't start smiling . . . "

One bit of slang that I find annoying, and that I'm hearing more and more often from white folks these days, is the conversion of a particular noun, "ghetto," into an adjective. I'm not a grammar cop, so it's not the "incorrect" usage of "ghetto" as an adjective that bothers me. I just think that since the noun brings to most American minds stereotypical images of exclusively non-white urban areas, the white use of it as an adjective is racist. And since the noun also denotes an impoverished urban area, and the people I hear using it as an adjective are mostly middle- and upper-middle class white folks, it's also classist.

I also find the word irksome because for white people, it has a "Get-out-of-jail-free card" quality to it. To illustrate what I mean by that, ask yourself why, when white folks use the word "ghetto" to describe another person's clothing or accessories, or their car or something about the way they're acting--why don't they use the words "trashy" or "trailer park" instead?

It's true that those words, which bring to mind classist notions of "white trash" or "rednecks," sometimes don't fit, because what's being described conjures up for the speaker certain stereotypes about black people, instead of stereotypes about poor white people. But that specifically "black" connection is often only there in what's being described because the speaker is using the word "ghetto," instead of "trashy" or "trailer park." There's nothing especially black about fixing things with duct tape, for instance, or eating inexpensive foods, or otherwise saving or stretching a buck. So why say "ghetto" for such things, instead of something else?

I think that for a lot of white people, using the word "ghetto" as an adjective has an extra element of daring and hipness to it, and also an air of knowingness, about the noun that is, the actual places called "ghettos." It's almost as if the white person is claiming (in a way that's nearly always unwarranted) that they really know what "the ghetto" is like because they've been daring enough to actually go there. And it has a "Get-out-of-jail-free card" quality to it because although the speaker is conjuring up and basically uttering racist stereotypes, that's supposed to be okay because there's something hip about saying "ghetto" like that.

But then, this piece of slang is becoming so common that it's already losing that kind of edge, as well as much of any connection to the places and people brought to mind by the word "ghetto." Kind of like the word "gay," which so many white kids use to describe something they think is wrong, or awkward, or "stupid." I've called kids on this usage of "gay," and then asked if they know what "homophobic" means, but they acted like they'd temporarily forgotten that the word they were using means "homosexual."

For an example of how "ghetto" is also moving away from its original meaning, listen to this one-minute video that a guy made about his lawn mower; notice how (from what I can tell) he uses "ghetto" and "redneck" interchangeably:

A lot of slang gains currency precisely because it's inappropriate. Many of the elders still do not approve of racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and sacrilegious language, so the rebellious young ones still use and abuse it. But slang also gains currency from novelty; new words and phrases get old fast, and then move into the realm of cliché. As slang words get old, many of them also lose their forbidden edge by drifting away, for their users at least, from their inappropriate racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.

As for the racism of the adjectival "ghetto," I looked up the word at Urban Dictionary, which describes itself as "the slang dictionary you wrote." I don't know how "urban" this popular, user-written site really is, and you also usually can't tell who's contributing a definition. A white person's casual use of "ghetto" is certainly different from that of a non-white person's, as is a white person saying it to white versus non-white people. Still, the debates that develop at Urban Dictionary over certain words and terms can give a good overall sense of what they mean, and as an added bonus, the poetry that slang has always had is often on display (okay, it's sometimes on display).

Readers there have contributed dozens of suggested definitions for "ghetto." Some insist that the word is a noun and should stay that way, while others recognize that it's now widely used and understood as an adjective, and insisting that it remain a noun isn't going to change that.

What do you think? Should people, white or otherwise, stop using ghetto as an adjective? Are there good or bad ways of using it? Do other objectionable words or phrases like this one come to mind?

For the uninitiated, I've copied below some of the contributors' examples, where "ghetto" is used the way I've been hearing it. (Note to grammar cops--I haven't edited these sentences . . . so I hope they don't make you [sic].)

Marcus's South Pole jeans that sag down past his knees are very ghetto when paired with a doorag.

Replacing a broken window with a trashbag and ducttape is ghetto.

"Look how ghetto I look!" Muffy said as she put on her gucci sunglasses.

Jane hid her head in embarrasment as her mom shamelessly committed the ghetto act of stuffing the restaurant's bread rolls, sugar packets, and silverware in her purse.

You might be ghetto if your car has rims which cost more than the car itself.

Yo Koolaid got so much sugar in it, that it's Ghetto.

Your Cd player has dents in it. It's so ghetto.

Word. That backpack is so ghetto! Where did you get it? At the Ghap?


  1. Yo, Macon, dat photo of da two white chicks is so ghetto!



    I don't know... the young have always wanted to be 'cool' and in their insecurity, are searching for new ways to be 'different', only to become their parents 20 years later. Seen it with the hippies, yippies, baps, japs, wiggers, and black middle class wanna be 'ghetto boyz'.

    You did a post several weeks ago about American culture lacking its own distinct culture, and maybe this is the reason.

    Perhaps the reason lies in physics: space abhors a vacuum.

  2. in the (queer, lefty, jewish) circles that i move in, 'ghetto' is often used as the basis of clever puns, since it can reference both the urban, american, black and latino ghettos and the jewish ghettos in pre-war europe. so, you'll find an album by a hip hop artist who does a lot of sampling of Yiddish songs called "Ghettoblaster". there are various references to being out of the ghetto or in the ghetto that turn on that same double entendre. i think that's more or less ok in that limited use, but it wouldn't be funny or clever without widespread understanding of "ghetto" in the sense you're describing.

  3. I love how the guy connects "redneck" with budget ingenuity and "ghetto" strictly with dysfunction...

  4. Right, Kit. Too bad the pursuit of "cool" so often provokes -isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc.). That vacuum metaphor is interesting in cultural terms . . .

    Thanks for adding that, Shayn. I wanted to also explain the enforced Jewish ghetto experience and the origins of the term itself, but space didn't seem to allow for it, in the short-attention-span blogosphere. The word's acceptability does vary a lot, depending on time and context.

    Thanks for pointing that out, LaSmartOne. You're right, he doesn't quite use the two terms interchangeably, as I said in the post.

    "Ghetto" equals "dysfunction" and "redneck" equals "budget ingenuity." Reminds me of the studies of white sportscasters, for whom "good white player" equaled "brains" and "good black player" equaled "brawn."

  5. Most of the kids who use "ghetto" as an adjective wouldn't know the ghetto if it bit 'em in their asses.

  6. Macon--

    Great post! When I was growing up my Granny often used the word "nigger-rigged" to describe when something was thrown together and "fixed half-ass" (what she said when I asked her what that word meant). I never used the n-word to refer to black people, but I do remember as a child using the above phrase sometimes.

    In becoming an anti-racist, I realized this was racist, but did not know what other phrase would replace it. My boyfriend once used "ghetto-rigged" to describe something he did to his car to fix it. So, that's what I started using.

    Thanks again for this post, because I had never really thought about the connoctations of using "ghetto," in that way--though I have often asked my fellow whiteys why they were saying "ghetto" to refer to the condition of something/one. Yep, hypocritical, I know. So, I am going to be phasing that word out of my vocabulary for good.

    I loved the video! I have often said that "rednecks" and people from "the ghetto" have very much the same culture and way of doing things. I know the history of why this is, since black slaves/servants and poor white folks long ago used to work in the fields together. It would make sense that they eventually had many of the same values and views....also a common enemy in rich white people. Hell, it's still that way today.

    This is why I think it's so important to get working-class whites involved in the anti-racism movement, because unlike rich white folks, poor whites have something to gain. They key is to figure out how to get people to understand that poor people (regardless of color) being able to unite against the greed and oppression of rich people is going to benefit them more than continuing to participate in the benefits of white privilege.

    That's the hard part.

  7. I think there is a lot at play here. We should first realize that "urban" has become mainstream for those 20 and under.

    When I was growing up rap was reserved for Yo Mtv Raps, and VH1 was the anti-rap. Snoop occaisionally made it on the airwaves to be with his friend MC Hammer.

    Now you cannot find a non-country video channel that isn't dominated by hip-hop, soul, R&B etc. This mainstreaming of things "urban" brings words like "ghetto" to the majority of America that not only has no experiance with ghettos, it has no experiance with black people or accompanying culture.
    This can add a level of relatively inncoent ignorance.

    This ignorance leads people to do or say things that while stupid, are not necessarily devious.

    that being said, why is a white, suburban, middle class, person who acts loud and flashy.. or trashy, acting ghetto? Why not just flashy and trashy?
    To add the geographic, class, and yes , color connotation of "ghetto", is to essentially say...
    "you are acting black."

    How is this NOT tinged with racism?

  8. oh man. use of the word "ghetto" as an adjective by people who did not come up in ghettos is at the top of the list of things i encounter on a regular basis that move me to violent rage.
    dear "ghetto as an adjective,"
    why won't you die???

  9. I remember in HS this (white) girl saying that around me. It really angered me.

    Finally one day, when there were no napkins in the cafeteria, she said "Oh, this is so ghetto" and I snapped at her, w/o even looking at her "Beth, you have never even been to the ghetto so please stop saying that."

    We weren't friends for too much longer afterward.

  10. Hmm, I remember using "ghetto" as an adjective more than 10 years ago. We were suburban kids of colour, and it was very popular back then. I don't know about now, because I'm a grown-up now and I don't know what's going on with high school kids.

    I think I said it last year, though. I was saying that the building I'm living in is ghetto (although it's probably not that ghetto). I live in a safe area, but my building and other buildings in this area are kind of run-down. Is it wrong?

  11. "Ghetto" is not as racist as "White Trash" (White Trash assumes that the default state of white as being good).
    Calling something or someone "ghetto" is common - even in the ghetto.

  12. Yeah, I don't see the adjective "ghetto" to be necessarily linked to race.

    For example, some kids of colour said that the public school I went to was "ghetto", although the public school that they went to had similar racial demographics. (I do not think my school was actually ghetto, but only relatively ghetto, compared to their school.)

  13. God, I'm so glad there's someone in the world that hates this word as much as I do. I am not against slang, but I don't understand why slang "allows" you to say racist/sexist/classist/homophobic things. I also hate the use of the word "gay" as an adjective, and the term "wifebeater" to describe a white tank top. I mean, why is it ok to say "wifebeater" in casual conversation?

  14. yes! thank you so much for posting this. I have also had issues with the word, and have at times had difficulty explaining why. Here is a great article that came out in the boston globe last year about "ghetto parties" that white high school and college students are throwing.

    thanks again!

  15. It's just a word. It doesn't refer to a specific race. It doesn't even refer to a specific time in history. It's an ambiguous term, at best. Ghettos are as old as time itself.

    I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any black person willing to confidently claim they have it harder than any other poor person in all of history.

    To "claim" the word "belongs" to a race or static, modern demographic is pure ignorance.

    I'll say "ghetto" whenever I want to, to whomever I want, and I'll be ready to defend myself. Enough of this being-afraid-to-do-anything-because-a-black-person-might-be-listening BS. My black friends are smart enough to not take offense to everything black leaders say they should be. Ha.


  16. OK. I'm going to explain something to you about white folks and the idea of the word "ghetto". Make no mistake. Even though the word itself comes from the white, Jewish population of Italy in the 1500s (check it out online), the word/concept of whiteness now exists on one side of the proverbial wall with the word/concept of the ghetto on the other. And apparently... never the 'tween shall meet. Case in point... I am a young, white male who came up in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York where the majority of residents were/are folks of color. This is a place that residents/outsiders/mass media would and do describe as being "ghetto". I used to employ the word ghetto as an adjective on an occasional basis (I'd been taught to recognize my whiteness by then)amongst friends for whom this word's usage was commonplace, particularly in this site's described manner. After leaving my neighborhood I realized that I carried this among many other words/expressions with me as a part of myself and thus as a part of my very identity which were viewed as belonging under one category: "I'll take 'Things White People Shouldn't Be Able To Say/Identify With' for $500, Chuck". Here's the thing. There is NO social model for white folks who grow up in majority "of-color" atmospheres let alone multicultural/multiracial environments. The result? Hassle, hassle, hassle. "Yo, why you talk like that?" "Who you tryin' to be?" "That ain't you white boy!"... and that's just the white people talkin'! My supposed coopting of another/black culture is seen as anything from pretentious to discomforting and threatening to condescending. I am "well-spoken", "well-written" and well... white. I dress "white", I do my hair "white". I ostensibly rep whiteness to the fullest extent. Know why? 'Cause I'm white. And that's what whiteness is and what I am forced to do if I treasure my well-being because so few people are open to having THAT conversation. I know how I appear. I am and will always be a stereotype in this system just like everybody else. "This over here is white people and this is how they are, how they act, what they like and how they speak and this is where you belong. This is your place. Just stay there and enjoy the privs, baby." I feel forced from ALL directions and by ALL people to just say "Fuck it. I'm just gonna abandon all that has helped to form me, all that I've learned and strive for the white picket fence, 2.3 kids, SUV-driving, soccer-mom havin', anti-Christ Christianity preachin', suburban, white life where I NEVER use words like ghetto as adjectives or when I do... there's barely any penalty" This is where the system wants me. This is how I am percieved, viewed, valued and treated. This safely preserves the status quo. Now, I know what you're thinking: Poor me, right? How do I deal with such a heavy dose of oppression without blowing my brains out? A nice white boy can't even use the word ghetto as an adjective anymore? What is this world coming to? Well guess what? All that shit that went on back there in the land of no social models? Well it had too much of an impact. So what will I do? Well let's further diatribe for a sec and talk about the 2 (yes, only two) social models that white folks DO have. The first is "White Supremacy" (Boooo!) and the second is "Colorblindness" (BOOOOOOOOOOO!). Let's face it the supremacy thing is not working. Not only does it serve to dehumanize folks of color but more and more we are opening our eyes up to the fact that indeed it dehumanizes us as well. (whole other blog entry) This combined with the fact that white folks make up only 1/10th of the world's population... our white supremacist nation/institutions need to do a little bit o' reconstructing, don't you think? Maybe helping to eliminate ghettoes in a land wrought with financial privilege and power?Yeah. Maybe. Well, there's good news. After the civil rights era white folks had a choice, either deal with the nation's/euro-american's past or shut our eyes to it. We chose the latter. And thus, colorblindness was born. But guess what. Not all of us come from wealth-privileged, monoracial white atmospheres where colorblindness is still noble (until the person of color walks by and we become the culturally ignorant bafoons we've been culturally raised to be). I am not colorblind. I have a color. And guess what? It shapes my very existence. So we've got two social models, neither of which function or help white people to grow as human beings. In the meantime, the empire is falling all around us. WE NEED A COLLECTIVE AWAKENING WHITE SIBS! Maybe this site is helping. My solution is to help build us a third, non-supremacist, non-colorblind social model where white folks can be fully human and exist as we truly are. The stereotypical and the A-typical. The well-off and the "ghetto". Now let's have a talk about privilege and also the accountability needed to make lasting, positive change. White folks... not only are we collectively a long way from the IDEA of the ghetto, we're a long way from home.

  17. First off, I've never been to the ghetto. And I won't ever come to the ghetto. But I think I understand the ghetto.

    I have to disagree with the idea that this is a term white kids use more often then non-whites. I've heard Asian, Polynesian, black and Hispanic kids from predominantly Asian, Polynesian, black and Hispanic areas use the word, actually with much greater frequency then white kids. Not even in a way that "takes ownership" of it, they just use it. I've heard people say things like "her brother is so ghetto"--- two people from the same family, one is ghetto, one is not. Its more connected to blacks then others, and maybe you can sound cleverer, more in the know (or prejudiced) if you come up with more specific ethnic terms for a given situation. Spike Lee seems pretty good at it.

    In the end, I'll keep using 'ghetto', and watch how I use it around Holocaust survivors.

  18. Here's the thing. Macon says among other things that we shouldn't use this term because it's "classist." So for that reason, we shouldn't say "ghetto" because it betrays a demeaning attitude toward the hard conditions of the impoverished (he says it "stereotypes" poor people, or something like that).

    That's kind of like saying, in other words, that what poor people really want is for those of us who aren't poor to respect their impoverishment. As if the problem is that the word is an ugly "stereotype" that hurts the feelings of poor people or the diminishes the poor experience. But poor people don't want the wealthy to respect poverty. They want us to eliminate poverty. This is one way class cannot be made analogous to race: our obligation to the poor is to make them not poor anymore.

    That means that we would never ever worry about whether terms like "ghetto" or "trailer park" are stereotypes of the poor. Now whether they're racist is a different story, though other posters point out that this is way more complicated than Macon seems to understand either, so I'll leave that. But anyone who worries whether terms like "ghetto" are offensive to the poor is not on the side of the poor.

  19. Are you sure that's the "thing," Anonymous? You seem angry--what "thing" is really bothering you? You're reacting like a lot of white people do when whiteness and white habits get pointed out--defensive. (And are you the same Anonymous who wrote the comment above yours, and others on this site? You should come up with a name--it's not difficult.)

    It seems to me that Macon is not asking for respect for poverty itself, but rather respect for impoverished people. Where does he claim the former should be respected instead of the latter? Encouraging respectful attitudes toward those people by those in better circumstances is just one way of encouraging a more realistic understanding of them and their circumstances. It's obviously not the only way.

    And if you want to read a blog about Stuff Economically Advantaged People Do, why not start one of your own, instead of snarling at Macon because that's not what his blog is focused on?

  20. Dear Runawayfred,

    1. I'm not white.
    2. Macon's the one who brought class into this discussion, not me.
    3. No, that wasn't me above.
    4. You're right; I really should make up a screen name rather than remaining anonymous.
    5. You sound like a whiney little twerp. Love the scare quotes.

  21. There's nothing especially black about fixing things with duct tape, for instance, or eating inexpensive foods, or otherwise saving or stretching a buck. So why say "ghetto" for such things, instead of something else?

    Because "ghetto," when used as an adjective, doesn't mean "black." Why do you conflate the two?

  22. Kamikaze Social ActivistSeptember 4, 2009 at 1:39 PM

    I appreciate your blog as I abhor the use of the word "ghetto" and other stereotypical language as an adjective, "gay", "retarded", etc. Both blacks & whites are guilty of perpetuating the use of this word & most of them do not know the origin of the word. Just look at all the stupid facebook applications, "What's your Ghetto Nickname" or "How Long Could You Survive the Ghetto?" or the many groups using the word "faggot". I am a social worker & we are tasked to be advocates of equality & cultural competence but I know that many of my fellow professionals do not uphold such standards! Its just sickening!

  23. An alternative to ghetto, for rural/rednecky purposes, is "bootleg," but nowhere near as widely used.

  24. Macon,

    As a black man, I REALLY appreciate this entry, and not only because I agree with your opinions on the subject. I am in awe of the human spirit when it seeks truth; so I applaud you for asking what it means to be white in the U.S. when you have the luxury of never NEEDING to ask yourself that question. That speaks volumes to me about your character, and I am glad to have stumbled upon your blog. I have linked to this entry. Thanks much.

  25. man, it's simple.
    " I don't like it when you do this. I wish you'd stop"
    "well. I always did this and I don't see why I should stop."
    Once the conversation resembles this in the slightest, you have lost hope for reason, it now becomes a shouting match/ gun battle/ drawn out semi-intellectual debate hidden in the far corners of the internet, or played out in the streets as marches and riots.
    as long as we don't give a #uck about other people, we'll keep finding words that make other people angry.

  26. Thank you so much! I was just trying to explain to my wife why someone would find her use of that word offensive. -a middle aged white guy

  27. Thank you for this blog. It's opened my eyes. I have 4 daughters. One daughter hangs out with a large group of African Americans/Black (I can't keep track of which term I am supposed to use. I am 40 and my husband I I had that discussion this morning! Which is now correct? Please? I am not sure). My daughter's friends all use the term Ghetto. When she started to throw it around I informed her it's not a good use of the word as the part of Germany my family hails from was filled with ghettos for the Jews. I never even went to the "black" relationship to the term as I think of it as an oppressive environment that's not nice....not necessarily black. She informed me all her friends use that term and meeting the girls one day I heard them throw the term around again. We talked about her language and how it needs to respect everyone and she doesn't seem to get it. Please, if you have advice, how do I get my "white" daughter to understand using the term ghetto isn't right when her group of "black" friends use it regularly. A black girl on her softball team told her "don't say that" last night and she just got quiet. This is why I did the google search. I was looking for an answer as to if it is indeed offensive. Apparently from my searches. It's a draw. Some blacks say no and stop making it a black white thing, others like your blog say it's not right. Help :) We live in SC and this is 9th grade I am talking about so you have a reference.

    1. You are right in being wary of that word. I am black (black is fine term. African-American is too awkward and long). I know how the word ghetto can sting.
      I am originally from Oakland Ca, but I go to school in Chicago IL. The problem is that its a very segregated city, therefore most of my friends are white all the black neighborhoods are impoverished in that city. My friends are kind people, but sometimes they throw that word around. It reminds me that I'm different from them. It tells me that anything they connect with black impoverished neighborhoods as bad. The food, the culture, the people. It makes me feel they look down upon where my family has come from, like they see me as less. Of course this is not the case, they just don't realize the gravity of their words.
      Ghetto's themselves are the result of minorities being pushed into low cost housing away from wealthier whites. Ghettos are the result of racism. So those in the "ghetto" aren't just their because they are trashy or classless, they are victims of racism. So their needs to be some sensitivity towards their situation.
      Lastly, common usage doesn't mean correctness. Many black people use the word "nigga" that doesn't mean its okay. It just ruins progress away from the oppression of racism. The same way saying "light skinned" black girls are "prettier" than "dark skinned" girls.

      I'm sorry this is such a long response, but its an important subject. I know how it feels to be singled out. I know that the problem isn't crazy racist rednecks, but rather people who are ignorant that they are being used as tools to perpetuate racism and keep its oppression alive.


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