Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My latest post on What "so ghetto" really means

You know when Oprah does that thing where she switches from “white lady Oprah” to “ghetto Oprah?”

This is how Kathy Griffin, in her book Official Book Club Selection, describes the way Oprah Winfrey switches between standard, Midwestern-inflected American English and an accent that illustrates her African-American and Southern roots. Damn! Pick up a book for a little brainless summer reading and get hit with a double dose of racism and classism.

I know. I know. Griffin is a comedian — one I like quite a lot, in fact. But the idea that black = poor and urban = deficient, i.e. "ghetto," is too much a part of the mainstream’s consciousness to be funny. We're long past Merriam-Webster now. "Ghetto" these days doesn't mean merely "a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live because of social, legal or economic pressure." In commonly-used American slang, the word has turned from noun to adjective, and in doing so, has come to illustrate the country's race and class biases. Read more...


Kelly Hogaboom said...

I commented on This is a great piece. Thanks.

I agree ghetto is racially loaded most of the time. I also think it's interesting Americans really, really don't want to let go of their classist slurs.

modest-goddess said...

if I remember correctly Oprah grew up poor and rural which make the ghetto comment even more out of place and racially loaded

cassdawn said...

hunh. i guess i'm going to have to give your pov some thought. i have not interpreted that word in that way.

i have definitely considered ghetto to span the races. particularly considering i've known far more subsidized housing (which is what i think of as ghetto) whites than blacks.

to take it one step further - it has been a term i have used to describe my own house when i think myself and/or my (white) SO haven't picked up the house or are arguing in public etc. my point is - the word "ghetto" has means (to me) someone who is living or acting beneath their education and/or savvy. so actually, i wouldn't call someone ghetto who was from "the ghetto" and might truly not have received the education or life instruction necessary to make other choices. i do think of ghetto as being solely the purview of african-americans is if the conversation is set in the 70s, which i know makes little sense but . . . otherwise when i hear ghetto i think of the projects and then of jerry springer, both with plenty of white folks.

for me there is a difference between talking "ghetto" and speaking with "an accent that illustrates her african-american and southern roots." and i can't comment on which i think oprah is doing (speaking beneath herself or speaking in a dialect that reflects her past) because she truly annoys me to no end and i can't stand to watch her except as an actress.

Tami said...


It is great to hear someone acknowledge that blacks don't own poverty. Unfortunately, I think that acknowledgment is rare. In general usage, "ghetto" is used to describe poor, inner-city BLACKS. There are equally offensive and loaded words customarily used to describe poor whites (i.e. "trailer trash" or "white trash') I would also add that ALL of these words are problematic and classist. They imply that all poor people, by virtue of their economic status, are deficient. Poverty does often lead to dysfunction, but all poor people ought not be made synonymous with dysfunctional behavior.

It would be be better, for instance, if Mary Mitchell had called bad parenting simply "bad parenting" rather than label it "ghetto parenting" with all the associated class and race implications.

cassdawn said...

It doesn’t matter to me either way if you print this – it’s not my intention to dominate the forum but this has been working my brain for long enough and sent me searching information. Plus, I assume that when you write a blog like this it is to make people rethink their actions and i have so . . . why not tell you.

I have to clarify that I don’t think and didn't intend to imply that the poor of any color have a monopoly on bad behaviours or manners. Or for that matter that the poor all have bad manners. My own life experience has shown me that is far from true.

As I stated, but stated in a very sloppy and unclear way, to me ghetto is acting or living in a way that is beneath your ability. In some ways, that definition fits pretty well with the reality of how ghettos came about. And until I started interacting with this post I honestly had forgotten the history of ghettos; I simply equated them with subsidized housing. But people lived in ghettos not because they hadn’t or couldn’t a certain economic success but because that is where they were forced into by virtue of ethnicity or race. These ghettos were the physical embodiment of societies overall denial of these people as equal citizens. That word “denied” is at the heart of why I shouldn’t be using the phrase. By using the word ghetto, even in the manner I intended – I have equated making bad choices with being put in a bad situation. So even if there are others like me who don’t think of it as solely a black thing – it’s still insulting. It is in essence, blaming the victim. Now, as a writer, I must admit I’m annoyed at the realization that I have to stop using that word.

I would disagree though with your assessment that she could have simply said “bad parenting.” Letting your child run all over the place and smack other kids and push to the front of the line and etc etc etc (I went to a birthday party this weekend) is bad parenting but it is not the type of bad parenting I associate with lower socioeconomic classes; in fact, the further up the class strata the more prevalent.

The point about “white trash” – frankly, I’ve always found that phrase to be racist against everyone but white people. To me, the inherent meaning is: “we already know everyone else is trash but these people were WHITE”

torimac said...

Our language is alive and changing. The terms "so ghetto" & "that's ghetto" have diverged from the original definition of "ghetto". Though I choose to refrain from using the term, my children have made it part of their vernacular and I can not ignore it. Their use of it could be seen as disrespectful to the original definition, and classist, and racist, but it's not. For it to be those things they would have to be familiar with, and operating in, the context of it's original meaning.
The historic meaning of words bears little weight in our youth, but that does change as time passes, we learn, we accrue more experiences, we get older. Therefore there will always be conflicts like that of the use of the "n" word (which some now subdivide into the "a" and "r" words).
That youth think they can use words without regard to their historical contexts opens the door for people who should know better to try to take the same shortcuts. Which is why youth will often roll their eyes when older folks co-op their terminology.
As for Kathy Griffin using the phrase to classify Oprah's choice of dialect, I am disappointed but probably would have been so surprised that I would have laughed. I agree absolutely with your assessment that it was a derogatory way to refer to the dialect that Oprah used, but I have a feeling that Kathy thought she could use the word without the classist/racist context.


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