Racial Justice via the Spoken Word

By Heather Steranko-Petit
Director, “It’s Time to Talk” Programs and Services
YWCA Greater Cleveland

When I hear the word ghetto, 3 distinct images come to mind.  The first is of Jimmy “J.J.” Walker on the 70’s TV series “Goodtimes,” talking about “living in the ghet-to.”  The second image is of the Warsaw Ghetto from World War II, where the Jews of Warsaw, Poland were forced to live in poverty and apart from the rest of Polish citizens.  Finally, in my mind, I can hear Elvis Presley singing about how “on a cold and grey December day, another little baby child was born… in the ghetto.”   However, I rarely think about the modern-day use of the word “ghetto.”

Recently, that changed for me when I heard a story on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air about the use of the word “ghetto.” Apart from the 3 examples, I had never really thought about the definition of a “ghetto,” so I decided to look it up. Here’s what I found:


  1. (n.) an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city, usually troubled by a disproportionately large amount of crime
  2. (adj.) urban; of or relating to (inner) city life
  3. (adj.) poor; of or relating to the poor life
  4. (adj.) jury-rigged, improvised, or home-made (usually with extremely cheap or sub-standard components), yet still deserving of an odd sense of respect from ghetto dwellers and non-ghetto dwellers alike

While race isn’t part of this definition, it strikes me how often race is perceived as an inherent part of this definition. I also never thought about how ghettos came to be in the United States. As one might suspect, the history of ghettos – even the use of the word ghetto – is deeply entrenched in racial history.

According to the NPR piece, historian Richard Rothstein suggests “one of the ways we forget our history is by sanitizing our language — like the use of the word ghetto or even the n-word — and pretend the problems associated or embedded in these terms don’t exist. We have always recognized there were “ghettos.” In fact, the piece pointed out, Robert Weaver, the first African-American member of the Cabinet appointed by President Johnson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described many of the policies mentioned on the show in a book he published in 1948 called “The Negro Ghetto.”

President Obama touched on this idea of words having power when he used the n-word in a recent interview.  He said “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. Racism, we are not cured of. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n—-r’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to 300 years prior…”

Whether it’s the word ghetto, or the n-word, or any of the hundreds of derogatory racial terms found in the Racial Slurs Database, as a society we have started to sanitize our language (some might call this being “politically correct”) because we’re embarrassed to confront these words and talk openly about them and their implications.

I am not suggesting that throw these words around as if they do not have huge meaning and impact.  What I am saying is that if we are afraid to acknowledge these words exist (and can inflict pain), we actually give them more power.  There is a difference between using these words as verbal weapons and having a discussion about the legacy of Jim Crow laws and the modern-day ghetto.

We have the powetalking graphicr to choose our words and stop sanitizing our language just to make ourselves feel better.  Then and only then can we banish the words and the associated behaviors that have historically been used to harm members of our society.

Quoted from a NPR Fresh Air interview with historian Richard Rothstein, 5/14/15


Heather Steranka-Petit, MA, CDP, is the Director for YWCA Greater Cleveland’s “It’s Time to Talk” programs and services. Heather participated in the It’s Time to Talk forum as both a facilitator and a facilitator for the It’s Time to Talk train-the-trainer sessions. With a wealth of knowledge about cultural competencies, Heather will support the “eliminating racism” mission of the YWCA.  Her work will be front and center as the Developing Cultural Competence workshop series get underway in August with “Becoming a Culturally Competent Individual.” The first workshop in the series will be held at YWCA Greater Cleveland on Tuesday, August 25 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

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