I’m sitting in a restaurant on Main Street when an unidentified white girl to my left (because it’s best that most white girls in circumstances such as these remain anonymous, remember that), says she thinks I’m ghetto fabulous. And now she’s chuckling, places her hand on my knee, and she’s got a look on her face, eyebrows furrowed and worried, as if she’s trying to get my permission to use the word: Wasn’t that funny, girl? Ghetto? Get it? I mean, you should know…
I’ve stopped the story here because we need to get something straight. I’m sure – positive, even – that there’s a list of legitimate reasons she used the word ghetto to describe me. She either a) admires my innovative skill of using paperclips to salvage the broken straps of my sundress, b) she wants to acknowledge my Afrocentric ways because I’m wearing a brown knit beanie on top of my kinky bush of curly hair, or c) she supposes I come from an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area.
I’ll admit it—there are some things, some personality traits at least, that I’d rather not know about myself. But I don’t think I’ve ever been one of those aggressive, racially sensitive type African-American females (except that one time in sixth grade when I threatened Lesley Colman for calling me Snow White because of my mixed background, and I said, I’ll take this apple and shove it where the sun don’t shine if you call me out of my name again. And he never bothered me a day after that). So maybe the unidentified white girl to my left knew this about me. Maybe she knew I’d allow her to use a word that is so commonly misunderstood, because had I really proven myself to be a more aggressive, racially sensitive type African-American female, she might have done the math: unidentified white girl plus the word ghetto equals danger, danger (remember that). And that danger can come in the form of being jumped or ganged up on, or, as is appropriate for this subject, ordering your very own ghetto ass whoopin.
This may sound too difficult to believe (because I’m thinking if danger equals ghetto and I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee—one of the most dangerous cities in the country—and I used to get my hair done at Kim’s Beauty Salon in Orange Mound—one of the most dangerous sections in Memphis—and because I know a guy that knows a guy from Memphis that makes grenades in his garage—then that must mean I’m a thoroughbred ghetto girl from the Dirty South). But that’s not who I am (remember that). Maybe I’ve purchased two-inch press-on nails from Walgreen’s because I once had a boyfriend who thought they were sexy. And there was a time I thought about dying my hair with grape flavored Kool-Aid. But lucky for me the nails wouldn’t stick, and when my mom thought about dying her own hair with the cherry flavored Kool-Aid packets, I just about up gave up trying to be something I’m not.
But back to my point: All of this might sound too difficult to believe. No one deserves a ghetto ass whoppin for using the term ghetto. No one. I’m smart enough, however, never to say this publicly. I’m not trying to preach, but I learned when you attend a rough-neck high school that’s literally located in the ghetto, you’ve got to watch what you call people, how you classify them. Take my freshman year at Ridgeway High. Eushiqua (pronunciation: you-she-ka-wuh) Robinson, the scariest black girl I’ve ever met. Teardrop tattoos on her face in honor of her gang affiliation, cubic zirconium rings on every finger to serve as knock-off versions of brass knuckles, and she needed a tutor in Honors Spanish II. So I tutored her. A few weeks later during one of our afterschool sessions, she told me some cheerleader spread a rumor around campus that she was a ghetto booshe hoe. And when I watched the stretcher take that unidentified name-calling cheerleader to the hospital, I shook my head in disappointment and have since decided not to befriend any other aggressive, racially sensitive type African-American female I come in contact with.
I want to say all this to the unidentified white girl to my left, but what difference could it make? A few seconds have passed and she’s still got her hand on my knee. Her laughter has subsided at least, but now things are beginning to feel awkward—you know the feeling. (Like when your older brother comes home from school, and he’s really enthusiastic, and you ask him, Hey, why are you so enthusiastic? and he says, I got me a girlfriend, and you’re like, Oh, well that’s nice. What’s her name? and he goes, Starkisha!, and the smile painted on your face is one of slum horror and in two seconds you know exactly where she’s from, how she pronounces the words shrimp (skrimp) and milk (murk), and why your brother’s love life might prove to be the death of him.)
I’m wondering if this unidentified white girl is even thinking twice about what she called me. I know it’s wrong to think, but I’ve been through scenes like this before where unidentified white girls eventually realize how racist they’ve portrayed themselves. But who am I to think her a racist? My family doesn’t trust Hispanics. I don’t know why. I live in an apartment complex surrounded by a dozen fast-talking Hispanic families and they don’t bother me any. (Well, except the chico downstairs. He’s constantly standing in his doorway, breathing into his hands as if the air is toxic and staring in the direction of our window like we’ve got a sign posted out there that reads Black People Live Here: Just Watch and Some Shit Is Bound To Go Down. Aye yi yi!)
Most people I’ve talked to though, don’t think that using the word ghetto is a bad thing. I’ve asked a few of my unidentified white friends what they think and they seemed honest enough with their responses:
Too much duct tape on everything.
When someone’s name begins with a Lil- or sounds like a fungus.
Yelling really loudly, buying cheap things, using the word crunk.
Flava Flav. He is that word.
They act as if they’ve solved some ancient riddle.
The other day I was browsing through the Internet and I came across this game called Ghettopoly. Some of the elements of the game as listed on the website read, “Buying stolen properties, pimpin’ hoes, building crack houses and projects, paying protection fees and getting carjacked.” A list of the game pieces include a pimp, a whore, a 40 oz. molt liquor bottle, a machine gun, a marijuana leaf, and an orange basketball. The creator of this game, David Chang, is a Taiwanese man who I’m sure has never spent the night in any ghetto. (America, what are we doing? Unidentified white girl to my left, and I mean this sincerely, if you own this game I might kill you.)
But I can’t work up enough nerve to say something—anything—to her aloud. Maybe because I’m not proud of the things I want to tell her. Like the afternoon my older brother was jumped by a gang of Hispanic boys. It was his first day of middle school, and my mother had just driven up to the parking lot when the boys started choking him next to a fence. A small group of students in uniforms were jeering, lifting their fists in the air. My mother slammed the car door. She dragged one of the skinny boys by the collar who had been punching my brother, looked him dead in the eye and said: If you’re going to bring this crazy shit to America, take your dirty ass back to Meeh-hi-co. I want to tell this unidentified white girl to my left—my classmate, my friend— that the skin on my back is the same color as hers and how dare she laugh in my face, think I’m anything less. (Because I’m from a suburb in Memphis, a two-story brick house, and I’ve never gone a day with a hungry stomach, and the first time I spent the night in a ghetto, a group of kids threw mulch and kitchen forks at my uppity, high-yellow tail, and then a girl slapped my sister across the face while I just stood beside a swing set, watching. I stayed up all night thinking that I was too good for that place, too clean.)
Now that I’m in this restaurant, staring back at the unidentified white girl to my left who just called me ghetto fabulous, I’m thinking about that day and just how badly I thought those kids to be ghetto. And I could have screamed the word back at them, flung it out like a wad of spit on their shoes. But what’s worse was that I had done nothing. I said nothing. So before I leave, before this unidentified white girl thinks she can get away with what she said—Ghetto? Get it? I mean you should know—let me answer her question:
No, unidentified white girl. What you’ve said is not funny, and for the record, I don’t know a damn thing about the ghetto, and girl, neither do you. (Remember that.)