“That’s So Ghetto!”: Discussing Coded Racialized Vocabulary

First off, I want to say hi! I’ve been gone awhile because I was trying to enjoy the little break I’ve had in between summer sessions and my sophomore year, and I definitely had a lot to think about. Today, I want to go into depth about words that we use in every day life, but have meanings that are more negative than what the surface reveals. I will also explain why you should take caution when using these words, and try to replace these words with better fitting ones when possible, which is actually quite often when you’re mindful about it. Here we go:

  1. Ghetto: This word has been used all the time, often sensationalized by the media and celebrities. You hear it all the time. “Oh, that shirt is so ghetto,” “That place is so ghetto,” You get the point. The term ghetto has German origins, and it was a complex set up for Jewish people around the Holocaust. These ghettos often lacked appropriate conditions, and people often starved or got sick. In more modern times, the United States government appropriated the use of the ghetto and put it into action to redline and segregate black people and other people of color from whites. When using this term, one often associates this with negativity, which in turn associates black people and other people of color with negativity.
  2. Urban/ Inner City: Going off that line, when one discusses inner city or urban-ness, it is used primarily when referring to black people and it is used with associating them with laziness and lacking motivation. This word has gone on to explain the overall laziness of black people, which is an obvious myth.
  3. Thug: This word is the slightly tamed down version of nigger. It has been applied to white people, but it is more often used for people of color and especially black people. This word is often used when explaining the death of unarmed people at the hands of the police. By calling one a thug, you are likening them to a criminal, and criminals in society are permanently stripped of their humanity and their rights.
  4. Peanut Gallery: Originally, peanut galleries were considered the cheap balcony seats in vaudeville 19th century. Over time, peanut galleries were usually the places where black people were allowed to sit in movies or theaters and such in times of Jim Crow.
  5. Uppity: This word has origins to before slavery. It refers to someone not knowing their place, specifically black people. This word was used widely by white people due to the expansion of white supremacy/racism.
  6. Nice Neighborhoods/ Areas: Like the urban areas and the ghetto, the term “nice neighborhood/ area” goes back to the times of Jim Crow. Back in Jim Crow, the intermixing of races was very undesirable, which is what led to the concept of separate but equal. This concept actually led to inequality, and there were measures put in place (that are still in place today) to discourage interracial mixing. These measures included preventing the distribution of loans to people of color, Redlining, and physically scaring off people of color. These predominantly white neighborhoods were associated with niceness, and the neighborhoods and areas with people of color were associated with dirtiness and badness.
This is not a definitive list by far, and I could go on and on, but I would like to take a minute to explain the effects of using these words. Even today, the words carry weight, sometimes even more than someone being blatantly racist. Coming from the ghetto myself, being told over and over that ghetto means less than, means inherently bad, left a mark on me. It told me over and over that I shouldn’t be able to succeed, that my success would never measure up to others. Of course, thankfully I had an absolutely amazing support team that pushed me along even when I felt utterly hopeless, but what I am is an exception to the rule. I was that one in a million. Most children in the ghetto don’t realize how many options they have. Their poor schools often can’t afford the resources to properly educate and prepare them, and many are placed in the school to prison pipeline at disproportionate rates. It becomes a smaller scale issue for them, an immediate thing. They need money now, in most cases, and can’t take up the investment of a college education, so they turn to low paying jobs that have low turnout, or they turn to other means of making money, like selling drugs.
When using these terms, it becomes so easy to dismiss the context that surrounds them, but one really needs to interact with the context. Understanding this context and history is what provides a ground for constructive conversations and the creation of possible solutions.

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