Is the word 'ghetto' racist?

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Quentin Tarantino at the Golden GlobesImage source, Getty Images

Film director Quentin Tarantino came under fire for using the word "ghetto" at the Golden Globes earlier this week. Why is this word sometimes considered offensive?

It caused an instant reaction on social media.

Accepting the award for Best Original Score on behalf of The Hateful Eight composer Ennio Morricone, Tarantino said: "Ennio Morricone... is my favourite composer - and when I say favourite composer, I don't mean movie composer - that ghetto. I'm talking about Mozart, I'm talking about Beethoven, I'm talking about Schubert. That's who I'm talking about."

When Tarantino left the stage, the actor and singer, Jamie Foxx, who had announced the award, returned to the microphone and repeated the word "ghetto".

"Jamie Foxx just simply and effectively called out Quentin Tarantino for using the racist term 'ghetto.' Well done. #GoldenGlobes" tweeted Broadway concert producer Jamie McGonnigal.

Image source, Getty Images

"Tarantino will regret the 'ghetto' comment when the alcohol wears off. #GoldenGlobes," wrote Monica Watson in another tweet.

To many non-Americans it may have been hard to grasp exactly what the problem was. Tarantino had belittled the art of composing for the cinema, but what had he said that was racist?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word was first used in 1611 to describe a quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted. (One theory is that it is derived from the Italian "borghetto", meaning a little borough, or from "getto", a foundry, as an early Jewish ghetto in Venice was created on the site of a former foundry.)

Another OED definition shows the word later acquired a broader meaning: "A quarter in a city, esp. thickly populated slum area, inhabited by a minority group or groups, usually as a result of economic or social pressures; an area, etc., occupied by an isolated group; an isolated or segregated group, community, or area."

In the US, the word started to be used to describe predominantly African American neighbourhoods - especially the densely populated areas that resulted from the mass migration of American blacks from southern states to northern cities - at some point in the 20th Century, according to Mario Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s, according to David Brown, a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan "it takes on a very pejorative sense to do with race, poverty, social-economic status, and neighbourhoods that are run-down".

And a few decades later it is being used as a modifier. Brown cites the 1996 book Sckraight From The Ghetto, by Bertice Berry and Joan Coker, which says you know you're "ghetto" if "your weave is longer than your torso" or you "think turning up the heat means turning on another burner on the stove" - and a 1998 song, So Ghetto, by Jay Z.

"It is still largely pejorative, though the Jay Z song is more subversive," he says.

Today the word is fairly widespread in the US, particularly with young people, meaning something like "poor and urban, cheap, substandard", according to linguistic anthropologist George Broadwell at the University of Florida.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Jewish ghetto wall in Warsaw, 1940

A Saturday Night Live sketch last year satirised four women oversharing aspects of their lives which are "so ghetto".

"I went out for drinks with a guy and he literally asked me to split the bill, that's so ghetto," says one. "I took an Uber X here and for the first time my driver picked me up in a busted-arse Toyota, and literally his wife was in the front seat. It was the worst - so ghetto," says another.

The word is "often used pejoratively to describe low-income African Americans, or their presumed forms of behaviour, dress, and speech," says Small.

"Some also use it more generically to describe people or attitudes they believe to be unsophisticated.

"However, some people use it self-referentially in a defiantly positive way, such as some uses of the term 'ghetto fab'."

The word's possible racist connotations are complicated and depend on the speaker and context, Broadwell argues.

"When used by African Americans to other African Americans it is generally a description of class, with an implication of being poor, possibly on government assistance, and possibly living in public housing. When used by people who are not African-American, the word is far more likely to be perceived as offensive," he says.

Image source, iStock
Image caption,
Ghettos are associated with rundown areas

"The problem with the word is that it's very difficult to disassociate it from its use to characterise low-income African Americans, says Small. "Thus, when 'ghetto' is used as an insult, it often sounds like a racial insult," he says.

So as some listeners would see it, Tarantino did not just dismiss film music as a minor sideshow compared with the art of major composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, his use of the word "ghetto" also betrayed a prejudiced attitude to poor African-American people.

Even with that quick statement, the director insinuated the ghetto was not a place for white, European, male composers, even if he didn't mean to, says Khadijah White, a professor of race, gender and politics in the media at Rutgers University.

And yet, at the same time, the use of the word is now widespread in the US to describe something inferior.

"The word's use is becoming more generic - it's losing any ethnic association," says Brown.

"But like many things that touch on issues of race in America, the implications of the word are charged and contested."

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