It’s the most draining discussion of our time. The debate on whether or not we can use “the word” — yes, the N-word. While this debate has been going on for years on end, we as millennials have seen a surge in other terms such as “ghetto,” and more recently, “ratchet.” There is no doubt that the historical meaning and context behind the n-word is deep in nature and of course cannot be compared or contrasted to anything else of its kind, but we should certainly not be quick to assume that these new age microaggressions lack negative historical implications and are not associated with blackness.
If these words aren’t the exact same as the n-word, how do they relate to blackness you might ask?
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, ghetto is defined as a part of a city in which members of a particular group or race live usually in poor conditions. NPR says that the term was first used to describe a quarter in a city, particularly Italy, to describe where Jews were restricted in the 16th and 17th century. After disappearing for years, ghettos returned as Nazi Germany created them again, housing them with Jews before they were taken to concentration camps. Later, “ghetto” took on a new but similar meaning (Jews were forced by the Nazis into ghettos, blacks were systematically forced). It was now used to describe urban slums after white flight left ghettos in cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit. Since then, the 90s were filled with numerous songs, scenes in black-centric television and film and much more describing something as “ghetto” — in some cases meaning to be either distasteful, or in some instances good, like “ghetto fabulous.”
— MarceloClaure (@marceloclaure) April 12, 2016
Even more recently, it seems that in an effort to connect to millennial (particularly black millennial) audiences, popular brands are starting to make missteps by trying to relate. For example, Sprint pulled an advertisement recently in which a customer was asked to describe a T-Mobile, and they described the phone service as ghetto. Not only was this phrase uttered out the woman’s mouth, but she also took a glance at one of the black participants in the room before following the statement with “I know that sounds…like terrible.” So you know it sounds terrible — but proceeded to describe a cellular phone provider as “ghetto” anyway?
Much like the n-word was turned from a racial slur to a possible term of endearment for us, the same could be said for ghetto — until it reached the masses. Just like rappers calling each other the n-word in songs has people not of black descent saying, “if they can say that, why can’t I,” many people think just like the woman in the Sprint ad — ghetto just simply means unfit. But no, it does not qualify for a term that you can use for something you don’t like.
This here is the problem with these terms of microaggression and attributing negative connotations to blackness. And the fact that black people have re-appropriated these terms for usage — remixed vocabulary and made it better — they are then in turn re-re-appropriated by white people to be available for their own use.
Acclaimed author, Toni Morrison once said “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” The cyclical nature of how the N-word or ghetto are redefined in black culture, but then still used in the oppressive society that tries to suffocate its use is perpetually damaging, and it’s the fundamental issue preventing our progress, we can’t even get on the same word let alone the same page.
In contrast, to understand the use — or misuse — of micro aggressive terms, one can look at the attempt to define black people as racist.
Comedian Paul Mooney was once asked this question, and his response was that black people cannot be racist by definition because we don’t have any control over people’s lives. “You’re worried about the race card, while I’m wondering why it’s in the deck. The color of your skin condemns you” said Mooney.
As Crissle of The Read says, words mean things, and it just begs the question of the effects race is having on language and how we communicate with each other.
What other re-appropriated terms are you sick of hearing about? Sound off in the comments!
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