"She's Ghetto" : How racial stereotypes and hegemony have affected our understanding of race

By Rosie Fawzi for Boston Compass Blog

November 12, 2020

Social constructionism, “the theory of knowledge that holds characteristics typically thought to be solely biological,” is a big villain in the production of the stereotypes we know in society today. We often see the creation of social constructionism’s ignorant stereotypes to be the underrepresentation of diversifying cultures and undereducated populations. Although these foundations of the problem are true, the bigger causation is hegemony. Hegemony is described as the influence exerted on a population by a dominant group. This influence can come in a multitude of forms whether that may be cultural, economical, or ideological. For people of color, their personal identity often ties subconsciously to how they are perceived in U.S. society's eyes. This becomes problematic when the eyes of society are commonly influenced by hegemonic ideals and beliefs. Specifically when students of color attend schools of a majority white populations, this can further highlight the influence of racial stereotypes due to the lack of knowledge among staff and the student body. The conflict of coming of age while understanding one’s race is complex enough without the persistent stereotypes that can influence growing young adults to racially conform.

When talking with current Stanford student, Joddy Nwankwo, she spoke upon the racial influence of her peers while being black when attending a majority white private school, as she described herself to be seen as “intimidating when [I wasn’t] conforming.” As we spoke deeper on what conforming meant to her, it became clear the way for her to conform was largely a way to disassociate herself from the TV portrayal of black people being loud, uneducated and ghetto. While speaking to another female student, Trinity White about her experiences at a high school in Newton Massachusetts, a suburb thirty minutes from Boston, she also conveyed past concerns of whether others perceived her to be “ghetto, angry and dirty.” With the opportunity to compare both women’s opinions and experiences, I would like to expand on a word they both used, ghetto, and how it relates to the broader issue of hegemony.

The word ghetto is a prime example of the power we take advantage of as a society to alter words negatively. The word ghetto today is used to describe a trait one may possess, while at its birth was used to express poor living conditions in a city or town. Many black and brown Americans believe ‘ghetto’ is a newly created slang that represents cool or tough. While to the contrary, it’s widely believed by those uneducated in White America to be a word that describes someone from a lower income community that is often seen as uneducated or dirty. The truth is, both definitions have created negative repercussions that only oppress the black community further. This is because one definition pressures young black kids to conform under the definition of ghetto, while the other shuns them into oppressing their black identities out of fear of being negatively classified as such by peers. The word ghetto highlights the deeper problem of hegemony as well because we are taught that to be wealthy we need a standard European education through twelve years of schooling and then college. Since our society values success through wealth, the word ghetto then insinuates that if someone acts ghetto or is from the ghetto, they are unable to be successful. This imposes the belief in many young kids of color that they are simply less than their white peers if they are unable to conform.

Kyle Pontes, a UMASS Boston student who formerly attended a majority white school in Cohasset, Massachusetts, helped to expand on this thought through the experiences he shared, “At a very young age I asked my mother why all black people are poor, [I know] this is not an idea I personally created but rather one fed to me." Many children are given little guidance on what wealthy places like Cohasset mean in relation to the greater world, and so as young children are flooded with information from their environments they are often not yet mature enough to grasp the meanings behind their surroundings. Because many parents or guardians feel their children would be unable to comprehend serious subjects, children get little direction from adults when tending to their own emotional reflection, “As somebody who showed up [to Cohasset] not really conscious of the way racism affected African Americans in society, I was not aware that people’s views on race were often formed through cultural media manifestations like sports or the narratives chosen by news sites that capture cultural groups at mere glimpses, making it easy for stereotypes to form.”

When looking up at the cumbersome and oppressive societal problem that is hegemony, it can become overwhelmingly immobilizing. Many people often feel paralyzed despite desiring change because the concept of society often seems inhuman and disconnected. We never have the intent of harming others yet we support a functioning society that harms millions daily, in countless ways. This is because society removes ‘the individual’ from the equation, which creates a disconnect between the individual from the injustices we face as a society. This distances us from potential change because commonly people refuse to be the solution if they are not the problem. So it can be conflicting when restructuring the very society that built us, because it forces us to admit the flaws within ourselves. There is no one, true answer to how change can be created, but this only reinforces that change is a different action to us all. This is our strength.

—Rosie Fawzi

Rosie Fawzi

This piece was made possible through the Boston Arts and Culture Covid-19 Relief Fund. Thank you for supporting our local writers and creators!