I remember being confronted by one of my privileged friends for referring to an old neighborhood of mine as “ghetto.” She said “you can’t say that” and I then endured a five-minute conversation about who can and can’t say the word. I was forced to explain why I, a person of color who has lived in areas that would be labeled by others as “the ghetto,” knew what the term meant.
Merriam Webster defines the word “ghetto” as “a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.” Historically, Italian cities had state-mandated areas exclusive to Jewish communities, and these came to be defined as “ghettos,” a term that has Venetian origin and can be traced back to 1516, and referred to the segregated Jewish populations. It wasn’t until the 18th century that physical ghettos became deconstructed after Italy emancipated Jewish people. The word, however, persisted. During the Holocaust, Nazis revived the term to segregate and confine Jewish people.
“Ghetto” entered the U.S. in the following decades and negative connotations of the word pursued. During the 20th century, specifically in New York, any ethnic enclave that was a product of immigration was referred to as a “ghetto”. With the Great Migration, “the ghetto” became a term to describe urban areas where southern Black Americans were moving and settling into. Due to government-implemented systems such as redlining and white flight, Black people and other minorities were confined to certain areas of a city, furthering the perception of a “ghetto” to be majority people of color. Policies forcing Black and minority families to live in economically and politically disadvantaged areas altered the meaning of “ghetto” to mean an urban area abundant with crime, violence and extreme poverty. Residential segregation persists today, leaving these areas underfunded and thus affecting the overall economic and social prosperity of their inhabitants.
Listening to others use the term, it seems it has become common to use the word “ghetto” as a derogatory adjective to describe low-income areas or anything unfortunate, low quality or cheap. For example, a recent trend has popular media defining unfortunate circumstances as “ghetto” even though it has nothing to do with the word’s actual meaning. Or when some item is substandard, one might say “this is so ghetto” with sarcasm. Language like this has further perpetuated the stigma surrounding urban ethnic neighborhoods as dangerous, hopeless and run-down.
Whenever I heard “ghetto,” though, I similarly thought of low-income areas populated by people of color. Growing up, I lived in a predominantly minority neighborhood that was also poor. To many in my neighborhood, including myself, our area felt like more of a community than some segregated enclave due to ethnicity or class. Going back to those neighborhoods today, I still feel the shared sentiment of struggle and hard work, characterizations not included in the conventional use of “ghetto.” As an outsider looking in, I see my old neighborhood as a consequence of government inaction and systemic racism. When neighborhood segregation and economic instability persist, referring to something as “ghetto” ignores the social and political implications of that space.
The popular use of “ghetto” as an adjective to describe actions, situations, materials, etc., especially by individuals who come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, makes me reflect on who should and shouldn’t be allowed to say the term, and in what contexts. Speaking about the Jewish ghettos in an academic context, for example, is not a misuse or slur of the word. It’s the Americanized interpretation that some people use in an inaccurate and demeaning light that bothers me, as it characterizes these neighborhoods and their inhabitants as being of lesser value.
I can say that I lived in an “area inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group.” I can also say that this was definitely due to “social pressures or economic hardships.” My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s to the one area where they knew they’d be surrounded by friends and family of the same Mexican origin. Immigration to America can be incredibly difficult financially, and that sacrifice can limit the living conditions available to you. When zoned into these neighborhoods, one is restricted from sufficient resources, and a poverty cycle can begin for generations, resulting in poverty for your children as well. Growing up poor for a part of my life, “ghetto” was also often coined by people of color. Black and Latinx peers and I often used ghetto in our vocabulary to describe the areas we lived in and simultaneously used it to describe something cheap, like perfume from the dollar store. We did not, however, use the term in an offensive way.
Since the term was, in America, first used to describe areas with marginalized groups and was synonymous with poverty, it’s easy to see how “ghetto” can be offensive to many people. Decades of forced segregation and systemic racism continue to contribute to a process that excludes Black and other minority groups from suburban and high-income areas. This, however, is not the only reason for ghetto being a racist insult. Using this word suggests that something is inferior, especially when pointed toward majority immigrant, Black and non-white communities.
The idea that the term “ghetto” might present different meanings depending on the context and the individual broadens our perception of who might have a “right” to the term. Due to its racially motivated history and use, it’s inappropriate for white people to use this word. Any use of the word “ghetto” reinforces the racism surrounding poor areas of color, and ignoring the political and social context surrounding “ghettos” discredits the generations of economic struggle of many and its direct root being government inaction. If you haven’t experienced poverty in a minority-dense community, “ghetto” should not be a part of your vocabulary.
MiC Columnist Hugo Quintana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.