Progressive folks rightly and regularly criticize rappers and others who use the word "bitch" as an insult for women. The word is demeaning and problematic on multiple levels. Somehow, though, another troubling insult, the term "ghetto" -- a label most often assigned to black women who are considered to lack class -- receives far less scrutiny.
There have been few, if any, public efforts to censure and police the term "ghetto," even though in many instances the label can have damaging consequences for large numbers of people. Sometimes the term is applied to any kind of problematic behavior (i.e. "They acting ghetto"). Often, however, black people who live in poverty or have low incomes are viewed as "ghetto." In that way, the term becomes a caste.
The term "ghetto" as caste means that black people are assigned the label because of their position in life, because of who their parents were, because of their zip codes when they were born. As a caste, those assigned ghetto are often viewed with disdain and as untouchables. One reason, though, that so many African Americans carry that disdain is because of their sense that ghetto black people make the whole race look bad.
There is a prevalent politics of respectability at work, and it is especially pronounced among black women whose identities might be less fluid than black men. On my campus, for instance, young black men can, thanks in large part to rap music and hip hop culture, embrace "hood" and "street" identities without the threat of losing respect. Young black women, on the other hand, do not have that luxury; when and if they receive the dreaded ghetto tag, they have a hard time escaping the negative perceptions linked to the term.
When I ask people to define what someone "ghetto" is, the single most agreed upon one-word term is "loud." They often mention that you can identify someone ghetto based on "how they talk," and they also note that there are certain "black names" that reveal a person is ghetto. As a professor of literature, I am intrigued and at the same time worried that language and language practices are so central to what it means to be ghetto.