But I was shocked when one of my Twitter followers, RuthieAA (aka Ruth Abrams who blogs at Interfaithfamily.com) was upset I used the word “ghetto” in a Tweet. (By the way, that’s what those of us on Twitter call our 140-character posts.) My Tweet? “Someone asked my sister if she was ghetto. She’s not, we decided, unless you mean ghetto enough to punch your teeth in.” My sister was obviously offended by being called ghetto. Though half her childhood was spent in a “ghetto” (Washington Heights), she was decidedly NOT ghetto.
During some serious Twittering (communicating with others on Twitter), we played around with rough definitions of “ghetto.” A food and a person could be “so ghetto” and even “ghetto fabulous” but was it being used pejoratively and was it okay when it wasn’t? RuthieAA seemed to think the word “ghetto” wasn’t racist but she wasn’t altogether sure using the word was kosher. RuthieAA said it seemed like a shibboleth to her. A what? According to Wikipedia, shibboleth usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group. So, the word “ghetto” was divisive….
I finally asked my friend from back in I.S. 143, the junior high school that skirts Yeshiva University in Washington Heights, what she thought the word ghetto meant. She thought using the dictionary definition of ghetto (which we haven’t yet notably) was “wack” (stupid, no good). She said “I define “ghetto” as a state of mind that transcends race/ethnicity/culture even class. the ghetto state of mind is one of defeat. from Washington Heights to a trailer park in Iowa, a “ghetto person” is one who thinks they’re owed something because of whatever life circumstances they’ve had. they’re someone who is resigned to being where they are with no ability to look ahead.” Then she had to run because her boss was looming over her shoulder. In my friend’s definition, calling anything ghetto definitely was a pejorative.
Even after RuthieAA said that she had heard ghetto used as a compliment: “cleverly making due with too little,” I couldn’t quite look at the word the same way again. Sure, my suburban friends laugh hysterically when I use it but would my junior high school friends if they were in the room? Would Holocaust survivors think it was funny? Some of them had after all been forcibly put in ghettos and some people now argue institutional racism has forced many minorities back into American versions of it.
So in the end, I discovered “ghetto” is not a nice word. And maybe I’ll still use it. Maybe I won’t. But the world won’t roll so easily off my tongue. It won’t feel comfortable. My junior high friend says “being a street thug is a symptom of being ghetto. the street thug doesn’t realize that if s/he punches someone in the face they can go to jail, they can’t see past their anger to the repercussions. this ‘ghetto’ thing is a sensitive topic for me. I feel like it’s used negatively to describe certain living conditions, however people have risen out of such situations (you and I included).” I suppose that RuthiaAA is right, “it’s hard to be welcoming when activating hidden tripwires.”