Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Ghetto Not-So-Fab

Stanley Crouch's Monday column discusses how "ghetto" culture has been mainstreamed and universalized:

Rather brilliantly, what [author Cora Daniels] describes as "ghetto" behavior and thought is not color-coded. To Daniels, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Gwyneth Paltrow are, through their various ways and personal decisions, as "ghetto" as the stereotypical project tackhead with five children by five different men, not one of whom she married.

So when Daniels uses "ghetto" to describe something, she does not exclusively mean lower class or black. Nor does she only mean the super tacky bling of wealthy, upper-class black knuckleheads who couldn't recognize refined style if it slapped the taste out of their mouths.

No, her observations are mercilessly inclusive. They criticize and pull the covers off of a much larger problem that may rise most brutally out of projects across the nation, but have
not stayed there. These troubles are common to all colors and all classes. Every person in this nation is threatened by an especially obnoxious kind of narcissism that justifies all actions or ignores everyone else - including one's own children! - in the name of personal pleasure or profit or individual comfort.
Is Crouch right that the "ghetto" image is truly "universal" and not solely the provence of one "color" or community? I'm not so convinced.

Take the situation of Aleta Payne, an African American mother in North Carolina. She shares her frustrations over her son's white friends teasing him because he doesn't "act black":

Poised to start high school, Sam is at the age where he wants nothing more than
the acceptance of his peers. So this question staggered him. And while we
learned the basics of the story then, the details have emerged -- syllable by
reluctant syllable -- in the months since. That it had not happened that one
time but had built over months. That it was always the same small group of boys
who generally treated him as one of their buds. That he'd stopped being able to
laugh it off as the question wore at him.

"People think I should be able to rap or something," he said. "Like they see in movies and crap." Strong words from our almost silent son. "They want me to act like something I'm not."

Sam is studious and quiet, much as his father and I were at his age. He
inherited my light complexion and poor eyesight, his father's analytical mind
and love of tennis. Apparently his wire-rimmed glasses and athletic leanings
undermined any "street cred."
This is the flip-side of the oft-repeated tale of the studious black student teased by other blacks because he is perceived as "acting white." Where else, but from the popular culture would white middle-class kids get the idea that one of their black peers isn't "black enough" because he doesn't want go the "thug" route?

The white American love affair with black culture goes back generations. Indeed rock 'n' roll is was built upon it. Hip-hop has now taken its place. However, unlike with what happened with R&B -- appropriated and transformed into rock, whites have just adopted hip-hop culture and absorbed its tropes. Thus, the N-word is something whites feel they can casually call their black friends -- and each other. But, more importantly, it's not just the language: It's clothing, style, culture, etc. And it is pervasive: Most urban-oriented popular culture -- music, movies, sports -- gives one basic archetype of how black is supposed to look and act.

To be "hip-hop", "black" and "ghetto" is to be hard, scowl and have a fierce "edge." To be athletic, one has to be a "baller." Otherwise, you're not "really" black.

And, so what does one say to a black young man who seems to prefer being the next Arthur Ashe, rather than the next 50 cent? How do we tell him that he has become victimized by a self-generated black stereotype?

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