Ghetto: What’s In A Word?

May 24, 2013  |  

GhettoNation: A Journey Into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless, is an assessment into a developing culture of people of all racial, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds who are victims of a “ghetto mentality” and choose to celebrate that publicly.  The book defines “ghetto” as being a state of mind and not a person, place, or thing.  The term has been used not only as a noun, but also as an adjective used to describe people who are examples of the ideology of ghettonation.

                Written by Cora Daniels, the book first begins with the origin of the term and where ghettos stemmed from.  Ghetto was actually an isolated place, inhabited by Jewish immigrants to keep them confined and separated from the wealthy middle and upper class.  However, the term has evolved dramatically from its historical context and is now a word in our daily vernacular that refers to a distinct group of people that derive from a socio-economic underclass.   We tend to refer to those people as individuals who live in the projects, have ethnic-sounding names like Shaquanda, or claim to have more than one babidaddy.

They be ghetto.

As Cora Daniels repeats (we be ghetto) incessantly in her book to the point of annoyance, she illustrates a valid point by relentlessly inserting “we be ghetto” within the text of her book.  We are a culture that celebrates and worships all that is ghetto.  When I read Cora’s book, it was a bit jarring at first, because she brought up many of the examples mentioned previously about what constitutes as ghetto.

Multiple babidaddies or babimommas

Ethnic sounding names or nicknames like Q-Tang and Nuck-Nuck

Living in public housing (aka the projects)

However, this book is not just about this tiny demographic of what mainstream media wants you to believe is ghetto.  Ghetto is not a tangible thing, but it’s a state of mind.  Therefore, anyone regardless of your economic status or racial background can be ghetto.  Yes, you TOO can be ghetto.  The term babidaddy or babimomma tends to correlate to the word ghetto whenever the expression is uttered.  However, rather than thinking about Shaquanda from the projects, let us take a look at thirty-six year old British model-turned-actress Elizabeth Hurley shall we?

Memba her?

Oh, that’s right.  The bad grammar was ghetto.

Hurley gave birth to a baby boy by Steve Bing whom she claimed was the father of her child.  Of course in ghetto terms we would say “babidaddy”, but it’s the same thing.  A man who bears a child outside of the confines of matrimony is in fact a babidaddy.   In Hurley’s case, it gets better.  Bing, whose net worth at the time was close to $400 million, denied he was ever the father of their child.  Hurley and Bing had to go Maury Povich-style on getting a paternity test to prove he in fact was the father.  All the while Bing was named a father in another paternity suit.  How ghetto is that?   Take a moment to ponder and ask yourself, if this story was presented to you, would you think that the Hurley-Bing case was ghetto?  Or if we replaced Elizabeth Hurley with Shaquanda Jackson and T-Dawg from Canarsie, Brooklyn would you use the term ghetto?

That’s a pretty tough pill to swallow isn’t it?  In Daniels book she also talks about how mediocrity and low expectations are celebrated in our society.  In our community, if a man takes care of his kids and doesn’t go to jail it is viewed as a valiant act.  This is to be revered in the African American community.  She also dissects the idea that by somehow perpetuating a façade of strength by acting tough through the use of carrying a weapon, getting into fights, wearing certain hip hop attire, and having an attitude of indifference that somehow that validates your blackness.  This is the part of the article where you may disagree with me on, but as someone who has been a victim of being called “white” through most of her childhood, I believe it is this very pseudo persona that has become the plight of the black community.  The ideal of speaking a certain way, acting a certain way, and dressing a certain way adds a “certain” authenticity to your blackness, and I believe that is the very bane of our existence as a functioning people.

However, the ideology of ghetto is not strictly a black thing.  In fact it never was.  According to Daniels, even a wealthy socialite who has never stepped one foot into anything remotely middle-class can act and be…well you know ghetto.  Several years back when hit reality series The Simple Life aired, starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, Hilton, the wealthy hotel chain heiress, got frustrated when her car wouldn’t start.  She finally gave up and simply stated…”this is so ghetto”.

What in the world would Paris Hilton know about what is and what is not ghetto?

I actually could care less what Paris Hilton knows, but it does lead one to question, is the term ghetto simply an implicit concept to all people from all walks life?

Can we all inherently be ghetto to some extent regardless of intellect and socio-economic status?

Towards the end of Daniels’ book, she explicitly describes her own experience of being allegedly ghetto when she and her husband brought their three week old baby with them to the movie theater at an 8pm film showing.

We can all agree that bringing a three week old baby into a movie theater is ghetto.

She states in her book and I quote:

There are no absolutes.  Ghetto is a mind-set and we are all infected…we can never stop trying to compassionately raise our expectations.

In other words, there may be some ghetto aspects to all of us, but what matters is what you try to do to raise the bar and not try to be like everyone else.  The mainstream may celebrate ghetto as depicted on reality TV shows, music videos, and social media.  However, don’t feel like because you reside in a community that has a monolithic approach to certain standards, that somehow you are obligated to follow them.   You’re not being disloyal if you step outside of the box.  Even if that means you choose not to be ghetto.

Perhaps we all have our ghetto moments.  Some just prefer to mask it more than others.

You may agree to disagree on Daniels’ social commentary on this subject, but it is interesting how there has been a shift in our culture with respect to the term.  You can purchase Cora Daniels book GhettoNation here (


Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the niche blog for nerdy women of color called BlackGirlNerds.

Trending on MadameNoire

View Comments
Comment Disclaimer: Comments that contain profane or derogatory language, video links or exceed 200 words will require approval by a moderator before appearing in the comment section. XOXO-MN
  • FromUR2UB

    My parents were born in the south, but moved to the SF Bay area when they got married. They lived the first 15 years of their marriage in various SF housing projects, and bought their first home when I was about 6 months old (whew!). My mother described two aspects of living in the projects. But, first, a little background: many of the housing projects in SF were located on some of the city’s most coveted real estate. They sat on hills overlooking the bay. What does that mean? Great views! Most of the folks who lived there over the decades didn’t know what they had. Now, my mother said the projects of the 1950s were aesthetically attractive places to live. The apartments were cute, clean, often split-leveled with hardwood floors. The populations there were predominantly black, but the residents were comprised of mostly married couples with kids. The men had jobs, and people took care of their homes. They could be seen regularly sweeping and washing off their front steps. The streets weren’t littered with trash and debris. The public schools were good. But, in every location they lived, there was always at least one or two families that fit the following: a houseful of kids, some with apparent learning disabilities, who were the neighborhood bullies and troublemakers. The parents were usually bullies, too, ready to fight any kid who beat up their meddling kids. So, these were the people with whom you had run-ins. They didn’t know how to mind their own business and leave people or other people’s property alone. They were the kind of people you had to move away from, because if you wanted anything nice, you weren’t going to be able to keep it and live in peace, around those folks. After most people who wanted something better moved away from the projects, those areas began their descent into the places where no working men lived, where most of the mothers were on welfare, where drugs began to invade and daily shootouts occurred. So, you can take people out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of them. People who spent their childhood in ghettos will always have a little “fight” in them, even after they grow up, become successful and live in nice neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean they go around brawling and cussing out people…there are different ways to do that. It means that they aren’t easily intimidated, and when faced with an adversary, even one who seems more powerful than themselves, they will strike back in a way that lets that person know it won’t be an easy fight. You have to know how to do that in a context that your foe understands.

    The topic of this book reminds me of a movie called, ‘Idiocracy’, which is a comedy that takes a hypothetical look at what the United States would be like in the year 2505, after centuries of its people dumbing-down…up? Probably the only flaw in that, is that it seems dubious people could survive until 2505, if they were that stupid. But, the movie and this book should provoke thought about what the world might become, if standards continue to lower, and ignorance and dysfunctional behaviors are glorified.

    • MLS2698

      I enjoyed reading ” The Warmth of Other Suns ” which chronicled the migration of blacks from the south, and their journey into larger cities of the north; and some westward like your family. And it is very true how the men were basically not in certain households, and this has become the norm in projects now ( mostly women and children). This is why I get irritated at black folk who devalue marriage, and say it’s okay to just live together; they don’t understand the process of undermining black families, and how we were pulled apart during the ” project ” downfall. I’ve never lived in the projects, but I am less inclined to start a relationship with a person who did; too much baggage, and often times, too easily excited and irritated ( cortisol levels too high from exposure to negativity, according to my child psych professor).

      • FromUR2UB

        Or PTSD

  • scandalous7


  • Mary

    This article was very well written I learned a lot of information about Ghetto. Thanks for writing this.

  • MLS2698

    IDK, there are ” ghettos ” all over the world, so I don’t know why people try to make the word apply only to black folk. I just came back from Nassau, and they def have mostly ghettos, except by that huge Atlantis hotel. The rich folk must live on the far side of the island; my tour guide says Oprah has a house there.

  • Ms. Kameria

    I have this book, and it’s a very good read. Ghetto is more so in the action and lifestyle of some people, but it would also depend on who is being perceived/perceiving.