“Man, Windsor is super ghetto sometimes, eh?”
This comment was blurted at me rather suddenly one day when walking with a friend through Windsor’s west end, close to where I live now on an average looking street. It’s something I’ve grown rather used to hearing—and have likely uttered a few times myself. But for some reason, it felt different this time. They were talking about an area in which I’ve lived on and off for the last 13 years. It was said with a particular amount of disdain and flippant-ness. It hurt a little.
This friend is a fellow graduate student colleague who is quite intelligence and open-minded so I decided it was safe to challenge them on their usage of the word ‘ghetto.’
“Well you know what I mean. It’s dirty. Lots of shady folks around. It’s ghetto!”
Dirty. Shady. So, poor. Criminal.
I asked if what they really meant was that Windsor is filled with poor people, or criminals, or possibly poor people of colour. They recoiled and told me that’s not what they meant. And it wasn’t. I don’t mean to be hard on my friend—they were simply repeating well-worn slang used to describe any number of things from low-income housing to duct-taped car mirrors. The word has gained prominence in pop culture from the advent of rap and hip-hop and as is usually the case with such things, is now used ad nauseam by many-a-middle class white person.
On the surface, ‘ghetto’ may seem benign, but the origins of the word illustrate just how problematic derogatory uses of the word are.
‘Ghetto’ was first coined to describe a segregated area in Venice in the 16th century where Jews were forced to live in squalor and desperation. The Venetian Ghetto was a prison until Napoleon seized Venice in 1797 and tore down its gates. Life in the ghetto was gruesome and harsh—a place for the Venetian power structure to survey and violently oppress Jews because of their religious beliefs.
The term has since been used to describe similar segregated neighbourhoods all around the world from the Catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland, to immigrant ghettos in France, to black and Hispanic ghettos in the United States where it’s pop culture etymology was established.
Jewish ghettos established in Nazi Germany in the late 1930's and early 1940's were converted wholesale into concentration camps during the holocaust.
In the United States, ghettos were formed during the first major waves of immigration in the decades around the turn of the 20th century where impoverished immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Eastern Europe lived until second and third generation families could relocate to better housing in suburbs after World War II.
The abolition of slavery in the U.S. led to mass migrations to inner cities, especially in the North, by former slaves. Constrained social opportunities due to institutional racism and segregation led to blacks—and Hispanics—being forced to live in low income neighbourhoods which function as incubators for poverty and crime with little in the way of escape. The poverty transcends generations and limits the network of wealth for people living in it to such a degree that these structural barriers become suffocating and insurmountable.
When someone remarks that an area or person or object is “so ghetto” they are, likely unintentionally, invoking a history of class and racial oppression in the Western world. Like other derogatory terms in our vernacular, ‘ghetto’ is a hateful word meant to denigrate its target as unworthy of respect or undesirable, and therefore something to be kept far away from us.
Maybe instead of using it, try to understand the social condition of poverty, and remember the humanity of the people who suffer from it.