Ghetto Chic: To Wear or Not to Wear?

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

Lily Allen rocks it (kinda), Will Smith used to, and about 8 out of 10 hipster 20-somethings I see every single time I walk into an “up and coming” neighborhood in NYC seems to have filled their closets with it. Door-knocker earrings, yellow gold chains, hoodies with loud neon prints, and even grills are popping up everywhere. The 80s are back with a vengeance in NYC, but tinted more the color of Salt N Peppa than The Bangles. It’s no surprise that some of the more decadent style choices of the black and Latino working class from 20 years ago are reflected in H&Ms worldwide or seeping their way into the minds of the fashion conscious. After all, the history of fashion has shown us that cross-cultural appropriation (race, class, and nationality-based) is a common catalyst for the next big trends. Yet no matter how cute so-called “ghetto chic” may be, I just can’t bring myself to wear it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve reached that certain period in my life at which the combining of “work” clothes and “play” clothes has become a necessity to keep down costs and save closet space, but I feel that there is something deeper inside that prevents me from embracing my inner old school rap star. For one, it’s a matter of nomenclature. The term “ghetto” is evocative of “negative” images (poverty, housing projects, crime, drug use, lack of education), and remains racialized by the media. Ghettoes and poverty are typically associated with blacks and Latinos, even though as a result of the racial demographics of the United States, there are technically more poor whites. According to a U.S. Census Bureau Press Release from 2003, though “non-Hispanic whites had a lower poverty rate than other racial groups, [they] accounted for 44 percent of the people in poverty,” which makes me wonder why whites are virtually ignored in discussions of class and blacks and Latinos are always assumed to make up the majority of the poor population in this country. . . but that’s another article.

Over time, the term “ghetto” has been used in a way that separates it from its history, a dark one of ethnic exclusion (i.e. forced isolation of Jewish communities) and government-sanctioned segregation (i.e. communities of color in the United States). Little thought is given to the true meaning of the word and how people ended up in ghettoes to begin with when it’s used. Along the same lines of a proposition made by Robert B. Moore in his essay “Racist Stereotyping in the English Language,” I’d like to make a little proposal of my own. Moore challenges typical methods of teaching and discussing the history of the United States by making his readers take a closer look at those who were oppressed in order to create it. He suggests that the “next time [we] write about slavery or read about it, try transposing all “slaves” into ‘African people held in captivity,’ ‘Black people forced to work for no pay,’ or ‘African people stolen from their families and societies.’” Imagine if we replaced “ghetto” with something like “the only place African-American men (who had fought for their country’s freedom from totalitarianism) and their families were allowed to live due to redlining, racist real estate monopolies, and restrictive covenants” when used as a noun. Or what about “a type of behavior I associate with the poor even though I don’t know anyone who lives in the projects or has had to struggle to make ends meet”/ “a style of dress that I associate with poor blacks and Latinos becauseI am racist and classist deep down inside, but cover it up by using this word instead of saying what I really mean because it’s more socially acceptable” when used as an adjective. So that’s a little harsh, but it would put a whole new spin on saying something or someone was “ghetto,” now wouldn’t it? It might make people think twice before applying it to any and everything that they deem as sub-par.

Another reason I would feel a tad bit uncomfortable clothing myself in “ghetto chic” is the manner in which the style itself is carried out. There is a hint of irony in middle to upper-middle class young people co-opting a style of dress that by name alone is associated with those who find themselves limited by their economically precarious existence. Clothing that is now used to evoke “ghetto fabulous-ness” is based on a style that has its own history. It was a style of adornment that came about as a result of the poverty itself. Considering that the poor found it challenging to invest in forms of real wealth, liquid commodities like clothing became currency, a sign that even though some may be on the bottom when compared to the rest of society, they could take styles (like jewelry and “preppy” fashion) from those who had solid wealth and make it their own. So I would feel strange wearing a style that originated as a way to prove oneself as worthy and equal in the face of adversity when I don’t face challenges in the same way as a result of my economic privilege.

I also can’t help but wonder whether or not my observers would be able to tell that I was wearing “ghetto chic” or simply conforming to expectations that may already be held for people who look like me. Call it a sad case of self-fulfilling prophecy, but I’m just being honest. It’s a feeling that I can’t shake. Nameplate necklaces are “cute” when Sarah Jessica Parker wears one as Carrie on Sex and the City because it’s unexpected. But throw excess “bling” on a girl like me (and maybe turn back the clock a few years, pre-SATC) and I may be characterized by quite a different adjective. I am reminded of the “black tax”that’s mentioned in the film Something New, a romantic comedy starring Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. Lathan’s character Kenya expresses anger and frustration with regard to her feeling plagued by the “black tax,” or, in other words, the judgment associated with race that compels some blacks to outperform their white counterparts in terms of education, business, and even public behavior just to feel equal. Maybe I feel a bit self-conscious about wearing “ghetto chic” because I want my appearance to correlate with my educational background and my 9 to 5. I worry, though, that some may interpret these limits that I place on myself with regard to fashion as a reflection of a greater problem, somehow an indication of a desire to distance myself, at least visually, from poor people of color. I caution my readers, however, that this is not the case! I mean, I have poor friends, so I can’t be classist, right (ahem)?

But seriously, it’s not that I don’t wear ghetto chic because I am afraid of being perceived as poor. Afterall, the newest neon Nikes and Bathing Ape hoodies are way out of my price range, so those who can afford them most likely haven’t reached rock bottom. Instead, I feel somewhat disrespectful wearing clothing that is meant to mimic a style that originated in poorer communities but that was based on wealthier communities that may have been made by people in a poor region of the world (or even right in my backyard) then marked up to exorbitantly high prices and regurgitated back to me as “authentic ghetto style.” Am I so wrong for that? You tell me.