Me & the ghetto


It was the same routine every night for about two weeks: turn off all the lights except the desk lap, fan the dictionary to a random page, write down the most interesting words in my notebook and memorize them before bedtime. After watching Akeelah and the Bee when I was 11-years-old I became enamored with the idea of going to the Scripps National Spelling Beenot because I was actually good at spelling, I wasn’t. There was just something awe-inspiring about looking at the tv and seeing someone who looked like me, who was me and was accomplishing something great. I wanted to be great.

But I quickly found out spelling wasn’t going to be my key to greatness, mostly because my youth caused me to become easily bored with things and I soon lost interest in spelling. However, my infatuation with words never faded. The power they had to make me feel so connected to myself, to the world, was still there.

As I’ve gotten older I think words have changed or maybe it’s not the words themselves that have changed but the way I react to them. They seem heavier, each one a weight tied to me. It’s the diction, the context. The way we throw around words, breathing them into the thick air without thought, without fully understanding what they mean. To us, to other people, to history.

We live in a conscious world, one that is trying really hard to take responsibility for its words. The ignorance and denigrations we used to let slide, sometimes even encouraged are no longer acceptable. You can’t exist anymore, saying and doing what you want without considering what it means, because if you don’t, someone else will.

Words, they’re funny.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a particular word being used regularly in conversations with me and around me. It’s the word ghetto. But when spoken it’s used deliberately, usually in correlation with race, particularly those of the “minority.” (I put minority in quotation marks because the numbers of those once considered the minority are rising at incredible rates.) As if ghetto and black, or latino, or people of color, are synonymous.

Struck by the usage of this word, I decided to conduct some research of my own and see why it is that people believe they have such a strong sense of the word ghetto. As if in order to be considered ghetto or interested in ghetto stuff one has to be of a certain ethnicity.

Let us consult history together, shall we?

It has been debated that ghetto is of latin origin, others say German, even Italian. It’s a stubborn mystery, but although the root language may be questionable, the meaning is clear: “the quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted,” according to an article in the Oxford University Press by Anatoly Liberman.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews were walled off from the rest of society in cities such as Venice, Frankfurt, Prague and Rome. By the late 19th century these ghettos were being steadily dismantled. But they soon reappeared under the reign of Nazi Germany, which made genocide a much simpler task. It wasn’t until the end of WWII that Jewish ghettos were officially abolished.

Eventually ghetto became commonly used as a way to describe slum areas or lower income areas where many immigrants and people of color lived. They were pockets of racial colonies. Where economic stance, cultural differences and race prejudice were used to keep people segregated. After WWII “white flight” from inner cities occurred lightening speed, until during the ‘60s and ‘70s ghettos were referred to as “negro ghettos.”

Yet, even though people of ALL races and ethnicities have occupied ghettos at some point in their history, living there was never a choice, it was forced. But somewhere between its origin and today ghetto has become an exclusive club reserved for people of color. It has turned into more than an urban slum—it has become people and clothes and music. It’s “being ghetto” and “ratchet,” and it’s meant to be demeaning.

The use of “ghetto” is so far removed from its history that I’m not even sure what it means. Is it good or is it bad? Is it me or is it you. Is it me and “minorities” who should be more susceptible to being categorized as ghetto because of our beautifully dark(er) skin or is it everyone else, with their Irish-ness or Italian-ness or Jewish-ness or whatever ethnicity they associate with?

If I’m ghetto, I guess we’re all ghetto.