A couple of weeks ago, my kid asked me why it was okay for white women to call things “ghetto” these days. We were talking about civil rights and changes in language — the shift from “black” to “African American” and “ghetto” (in reference to places) to “inner city.”
So when, in an effort to avoid doing work on a Sunday morning, I read in theNew York Times Magazine, a quote from Gwyneth Paltrow saying “there’s this kind of hidden ghetto side to Stella. She’s tough,” I thought to myself, how has “ghetto” re-entered the popular vocabulary as a descriptor of style and taste and why do white women love saying it so much?
I suspect that the word has traveled from reality programming to broad usage as an indicator of a kind of racialized or inferentially racist bad or lower class taste. It differs in some important ways, though, from previous modes of referencing tasteful humor, behavior, or fashion. In the first place, the phrase “white trash” had rural connotations and it was, well, clearly about white people who ate road kill, married relatives, and spoke like “hicks.” “Ghetto” refers to urban taste formations and behaviors and is racialized and gendered in distinct ways. “Ghetto” is aggressive (“tough,” in Paltrow’s words), lower-class, and frequently feminized — Whitney Houston’s behavior was frequently referred to as “ghetto,” female aggression is “ghetto,” and when the Real Housewives behave badly (as they are wont to do), their behavior is “ghetto.”
There’s something sneaky about the way in which “ghetto” has re-emerged, something that suggests a kind of amnesia about the ways in which this word has been used in the US in particular and its loaded racist history. So the next time you hear one of your students or a friend use this word, ask them what they really mean by the word and push them to think about the cultural work it continues to do.