Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Keepin' It Real?

Cora Daniels's incisive new book Ghettonation laments our society's increasing tolerance for low expectations, signaled by the way the ghetto has been transformed from an actually existing place into a mainstream lifestyle or "mind-set." The ghetto (noun) remains a site of racial oppression and economic poverty for some, but for the vast majority of Americans "ghetto" has come to mean a way of doing things, a style, an adjective used to describe the qualities (or lack thereof) of someone or something -- as in, "That's sooo ghetto."

Daniels reminds us that most Americans are not concerned in the least with alleviating the depressed socioeconomic conditions that characterize minority-dominated ghettos in our inner cities. Rather, in a perverse, consumerist twist (or collective "fuck you" to those actually languishing in ghettos), "ghetto" has become sheer mask and performance, a way for people of all races and classes to "play" poor and black.

One example of such playful, anti-materialist spectacle stands out in Daniels's research. It is, which translates any website address you enter into its search engine into "ghettospeak," an urban, rap-inflected, and decidedly raced ("black") slang. (A more "neutral," race- and class-variable "dictionary" of youth and urban slang is the user-edited This is how the website translates two passages from my previous posts:

Me: I wonder what the implications of such overseas profitability are for domestic jobs. It's true that U.S. corporations are profiting from high sales in Europe and Canada, but I'm not sure if that necessarily translates into more jobs or better employment conditions (e.g., wages) for employees of those corporations.

Gizoogle: I rappa what tha implications of such overseas profitability is fo' domestic jobs n shit. It's true tizzle U.S. corporizzles is profit'n fizzle hizzy sales in Europe n Canada, but I'm not sure if T-H-to-tha-izzat necessarily translates into mizzy jobs or playa employment conditions (e.g., wages) fo' employees of those corporizzles fo' sheezy.

Me: But then Bauerlein makes this unusual concession: "The problem isn’t the inclusion of sociopolitical forensic per se. Rather, it is that the selections fall squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum. They are all more or less radically progressivist. They trade in group identities and dismantle bourgeois norms. They advocate feminist perspectives and race consciousness. They highlight the marginalized, the repressed, the counter-hegemonic."

Gizoogle: But then Bauerlein makes this unusual concession n shit: "izzle problem isn’t tha inclusion of sociopolizzles forensic per se. Brotha it is that tha selections fall squarely on tha left side of tha ideolizzles spectrum , chill yo. They is all more or less radically progressizzles. They trade in group identities n dismantle bourgeois norms . Nigga get shut up or get wet up. They advocate feminist perspectizzles n race consciousness. They highlight tha marginalizzles, tha repressed, tha wanna be gangsta."

Admittedly, Bauerlein's stodgy prose is made so much more amusing by this translation. I especially love that it automatically translated "the counter-hegemonic" to "tha wanna be gangsta" because the latter, in fact, captures the precise meaning of the former with its ironic undertone. Bauerlein, of course, is taking critics to task (unfairly, I think, but still...) for appropriating a kind of counter-hegemonic "cool," which is, in a different context, something like a gangsta pose.

At any rate, you can see how the mainstreaming of ghettospeak can be utterly entertaining, often hilarious, and yet remain troubling somehow. Just what kinds of assumptions are we making about race, class, and even gender when we "playfully" submit to talk like this? Who are we trying to be -- what are we trying to say about ourselves -- when we end every other sentence with "fo' shizzle"? From whence this desire to call a close friend or confidant "my nigga"? All of which is to ask, What histories do we elide in such flights of raced fancy?

Whose ghetto is this anyway?


Anonymous said...

Well said.

I enjoy reading your blog very much so! (fo' shizzle)

Kinohi Nishikawa said...

My friend Abby weighs in with this observation:

Did you know the grad students here [Yale] call the area of town in which they live the "grad ghetto"?? No kidding. And I don't know how much you know about New Haven but the grad student neighborhood and the actual geography of "depressed socioeconomic conditions" do not really overlap all that much.