• Tiye Naeemah Cort

Dear White People

Dear White People,

I know black people have a habit of repurposing words to mean something else, and sometimes you may think that this repurposing is meant to be inclusive, but we do it for the culture- our culture, to be more specific. When words that we claim and repurpose are used, they are understood correctly amongst our own populations. There are many words that fall under this category, but consider this post a friendly reminder that GHETTO is not your adjective. Your everyday use of the word creates some very awkward moments because you're using it wrong, it's usually a perfect example of offensive appropriation, and if you're an educator, the word only has a few appropriate places in the classroom.

As a black educator, I often find myself on my toes about things that are said or done that unintentionally offend people of other races. Since I no longer teach in the K-12 classroom and I have spent the past year observing both preservice and experienced teachers in their classrooms, and coaching/mentoring the former, this forces me to note and process things that are said and done in milliseconds before I respond. I've posted about things I've heard some of you say and your interesting word choice, but one word that I continue to stumble upon in conversations is the word "ghetto". I've heard it used in casual conversations outside of the classroom and I usually bite my tongue, and sometimes leave the conversation, when it is used in non-academic environments. That's wrong of me, and I'm working on how to respond without stopping someone mid-conversation to ask them exactly what they mean and making the moment completely awkward. But maybe an awkward moment is what needs to happen when I hear it- asking people to explain exactly what they mean by the term, because if they are using it as a descriptive replacement for "broken", "old", "dirty", "dusty", or "thrown together", those are the exact words that they should use instead. Maybe it should be a teaching moment, and one where we all feel awkward because of your loose application of a term that has nothing to do with what is being discussed.

The use of "ghetto" is worth noting because I know what it means when other black people use it, and it is very different from the way white people use it. When we say "ghetto", we are referring to characteristics that are reminiscent of things that you may see in actual ghetto neighborhoods, which tend to be populated by other brown and black people like us. It usually describes a style or way of being that can only comes as a result of being raised in familiarity with or experiential knowledge of the ghetto. So when the word is used by people who have little to no firsthand knowledge of today's ghettos, the appropriation raises an eyebrow. When the word is used incorrectly by people who have little to no firsthand knowledge of today's ghettos, it becomes offensive appropriation.

What drives me crazy is hearing the word used in educational environments- places where students and other adults usually cannot simply stand up and walk away, and are usually discouraged from questioning the word choice of their instructors or colleagues for the same reason of preventing those awkward teaching moments from taking place. The fact is that unless you, as a teacher, are discussing the details of the Holocaust or minority occupied slum neighborhoods, there is really no other reason to use the word- and certainly not as an adjective.

During a poetry unit, I once watched a teacher read a black student's work then ask the student "Did you learn that in the ghetto?", and she laughed a little after asking. The student ignored the question and continued working on her poetry.  It was a quick, easily missed moment that reminded me that there are so many ways in which we can all quickly discredit and put our students down. It's natural to assume that they're from certain places, live in certain communities, and have certain kinds of upbringings simply based on our interactions with them in the classroom, but to act on those assumptions in disrespectful and racially insensitive ways is inexcusable.

While I don't think that many white teachers actually mean harm when they say or do certain things, their intentions really don't matter once the damage is done. Accepting a teaching role means that you are accepting that you may be held to a higher standard of responsibility and accountability when it comes to racial, cultural, and social consciousness, so there is no excuse for erroneously incorporating what students may use in their everyday vernacular in the classroom. I've come across many instances in recent news about teachers casually using language that is inappropriate for the classroom, never mind offensive, and it makes me wonder what could possibly send the message that such behavior is acceptable. Maybe it's the silence of those who are made to feel very uncomfortable about speaking up when they hear things that are just plain wrong. Maybe it's the lack of leadership and professional development with a focus on modern language and cultural relevance that allows otherwise decent educators to undo such great work with such small words.

If it's an argument of being culturally relevant and relating to students simply by "talking like the kids", I couldn't tell you the last time I, a black woman, described something/someone as "ghetto" or heard a young person use the term. I can say that, just a few days ago, in a conversation with a white woman from Maine (a state where I have never had the privilege of driving through a ghetto) she used the term "ghetto" to describe an old, outdated object. I gave her a blank stare instead of the nod of agreement that she was looking for, mostly because I was caught completely off guard by her word choice and her assumption that I would be approving of her comment. If you want to relate to and sound more like your black friends, colleagues, or students, try listening and doing some real research into what is being said, how it is interpreted, and who is really allowed to say things in a non-problematic way. Do your Googles, become familiar with Urban Dictionary, ask a question, do anything but find yourself becoming too comfortable with appropriating terms in error.




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