People have certain thoughts when it comes to the Bronx. Some good, lots bad. The positive ones tend to be the Yankees (blech), A Bronx Tale, the Bronx Zoo…that’s about it. I’ve talked plenty about my love of the Bronx in the past. It has plenty of charm, history, good people, and good sights to make up for its shortcomings. (Except for maybe the Yankees.)
But the number one term that people tend to come up with for where I work? “Ghetto.”
It can be a noun: “You work in the ghetto?”
An adjective: “We mad ghetto!”
An adverb: “We ran ghettoly down the street.”
OK, a noun and an adjective.
The actual definition, according to the ever-useful Dictionary.com, is “a section of the city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.”
We all know there’s much more to the concept than that. It’s a source of both pride and shame. Everyone loves the tales from musicians and athletes who grew up in the ghetto, worked hard, achieved success, and made it out. The absolute best ones never forget where they came from–they return to the old neighborhood to do special free concerts, donate to the Boys and Girls Club, and talk fondly in interviews about what they learned growing up the way they did, usually taking a bizarre sense of pride in their area code.
SocialJerk is representing the 718.
Being ghetto, and from the ghetto, is one of those things that’s a boast when I say it about me, and an insult when I say it about you. Much like I can call my aunts crazy, but if you were to do it, we’d have an issue.
When my coworker and I saw one of our teen group girls wandering lost on the sidewalk, unable to find the building for our first group meeting, she said to me, “I’ll just yell down out the window to her. We can be ghetto.”
Yes, we can be ghetto. This is our neighborhood. Who are we trying to impress? We’re not going to let societal conventions and etiquette keep us from going about things in a convenient, reasonable manner.
That’s one thing we love about identifying with the ghetto. Not caring what people think. Being tough, overcoming, surviving. Handling things yourself. You’re yelling at me on the street? No, I’m not going to call the cops, or politely ignore you. I’m going to confront you, and we’ll put a stop to this now. Unless I know you have a gun. Being ghetto is also about being smart–knowing what situations you can and can’t get yourself out of. Using those smarts to get what you need. Not being a pushover.
But then there are times when it’s not so nice to hear. Like when I went to college in a leafy Connecticut suburb, and answered “Brooklyn” when asked where I was from. “Oh, so you’re from like…the ghetto?” Not said in a, hey, you must have some fun stories about the neighborhood characters we missed out on, growing up in sterile suburban environments. More of an, oh dear, you’re probably going to beat us up, and you’re definitely going to need to borrow money.
Um, fuck you. My mom has a PhD and we live in a house. Don’t judge me.
My clients struggle with this all the time. Ghetto is a part of their identities, and they’re proud of where they’re from. But in the larger world, ghetto ways of dealing with things don’t always pan out.
When you struggle every day to be treated like a full human being, and to get respect, it’s very hard to just turn it off. I’ve had numerous clients proudly tell me that they cursed out their teacher, or their ACS worker, or their new boss. We talk about the fact that this doesn’t seem to be working for them. They’re failing, have no job, or their court ordered supervision has now been extended. But they’re still kind of proud, because the way they see it, they stood up for themselves.
At the same time, my clients try to distance themselves from the neighborhood, and from the ghetto identity. Starting at a young age, they talk about getting out of the Bronx. One mother in particular is always eager to tell me about their station in life. “I tell my kids, we live here right now because we have to financially, but we’re not like these other people here.” “Here” is a housing project in the Bronx.
There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance that goes along with this worldview. People who live in the projects are no good. They are dirty, dishonest, and lazy. But we live in the projects…huh. Well that’s because we’re thrifty! We’re saving up to move to a better address. Perhaps even Westchester.
They’ve got to make it work somehow.
We all need to learn to navigate different situations and environments. The way you act in school is not the way you act at work, the way you talk to your friends is not the way you talk to your parents. (Says the girl who has been repeatedly admonished to stop using the word “douchebag” at family gatherings.) My friends love listening to me talk to my family, because that’s the only time the Brooklyn accent I insist I outgrew (what, people can do that) comes out.
As a social worker, I approach my clients from a strengths based perspective. Everybody has strengths. We all have things we’re good at. Being ghetto, and being from the ghetto, involves a lot of strength. Skills and wisdom develop. A big part of my job is helping my clients to see how they can use these to their advantage. How they can be assertive, a good advocate, a strong parent and role model for their children, without alienating their children’s teachers or getting their housing application mysteriously misplaced, because a worker didn’t appreciate the attitude.
But I always tread carefully. I don’t want to have to get ghetto on anybody.