Tag Archives: language

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. Continue reading

When Don Imus and other racist jerks appropriate African-American terminology

by guest contributor Meera Bowman-Johnson, originally published at Our Kind of Parenting

In the best of times, being black is absolutely beautiful (let the choir say “Amen!”). In the worst of times, it feels something like this:

Three men went to hell.

The devil said to them “You have come to hell, and you must now choose whether to spend eternity in room 1, 2 or 3″

He then opened the doors to the three rooms.

Room 1 was filled with men standing on their heads, on a hard wooden floor.

Room 2 was filled with men standing on the heads, on a cement floor.

Finally, room 3 had just a few men, standing in human feces up to their knees and drinking coffee.

The men thought for a while, and decided to go with room 3, as it was less crowded and they could drink coffee.

They entered the door to room 3 and just as it was closing behind them, the devil said “OK men, coffee break’s over. Back on your heads.”

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. Because just when it looks like everything’s cool, that no public figure has acted out in a while and offended black people, some modern-day Jimmy the Greek has to come out of their face with a racist insult. For no good reason at all (not that there ever is one). By now, just about everybody in the black blogosphere has weighed in on Don Imus’ ignorant and offensive remarks about the Rutgers’ Women’s Baskeball Team. The comment that referred to the impressive athletes as “nappy headed hos” (for those who’ve been under the mommy – or daddy – rock for the couple of weeks).

I’ve read countless, incredibly astute reactions to the “shock jock’s” remarks, but thought one of the most pointed came from Deborah Dickerson’s The Last Plantation: “You never see the racism coming. You’re minding your own business, say, playing basketball or buying groceries or eating at Krispy Kreme when an Imus comes along and forces you to be ‘black’ so he can be ‘white’.” As a woman who deeply despises misogynistic language and has has proudly worn just about every natural style known to 125th Street, all I could think was, (to quote The Millionaire’s Wife from Gilligan’s Island): “Well (snif). I’ve never!”

Oh, wait a minute. Yes I have.

Like my friend Field Negro so eloquently alluded to, this Imus business is par for the course for those of us LWB (Living While Black). I don’t like it, I don’t condone it, but do I expect it? Sadly, yes. Because, just in case anybody is late coming to the party, there are a lot of ignorant people in the house. To narrow the group even further, there are a lot of ignorant racists dancing poorly, to their own rhythm. And to whittle it down even one degree further, there are a lot of ignorant racists throwing their hands in the air like they just don’t care, ’cause they really don’t think they’re racists. I’m fairly certain Don Imus is one of those clueless types. The type that thinks that having a couple of black drinking buddies gives them free reign to say whatever and end up getting left at the bar (or in the studio) wondering “Hey…where did everybody go??”

I say this for one reason only: the term “hos” is one highly offensive thing, but how many white guys do you know actually even know the word “nappy”…until now? Hugh Grant thinks it means diaper. So does Paul McCartney. Of course they do, they’re English. But what about white American guys (the ones that aren’t married to black women)? Sure, terms like “diss” began popping up on sitcoms back in the early nineties and “bling” crossed quite seamlessly, thanks to people like Puffy (who I blame for many things). “Hos” I could see (rappers throw that one around all the time which is a seperate post altogether), but “nappy”? Where’d he get that one from, BET’s Comicview?

All I can assume is that, much like the old anti-drug commercial, where the hysterical dad confronts his adolescent son when he finds weed in his room (“I learned it from watching you, Dad!”), Don Imus learned the word “nappy” by watching black people (not that I, nor my fellow ethnicists are personally to blame for any of this nonsense). Whether it was through listening to hip hop, watching School Daze, or hanging out with Robin Quivers, somewhere along the way, Imus caught on to another N-word and assumed the word was fair game. Or maybe he caught somebody proudly sporting one of those old school “Happy to Be Nappy” t-shirts I picked up junior year of high school at The Greek Picnic. I don’t know. Continue reading