What I am about to write isn’t new. If you read what I am about to write and you are in any way shocked that it is a reality, cure then; welcome. Welcome to the party. You are late but at least you’re here, so let me serve you some tea…
I am a black woman who was once a black girl, and I remember that during my teenage years and probably even before that, I was told that the fashion I donned was “ghetto” or “hood” or “cheap.” My 15-year-old self, used to walk around the streets of Peckham with painstakingly gel slicked hair along my forehead, the rest of my hair pulled to the top of my head and decorated with colourful tiny baubles. My 15-year-old self, would show off my acrylic nails to my friends and they too would return the favour as we admired the intricate designs decorated by the Vietnamese nail shop technicians.
We would often be told by white teachers and mainstream media at the time that this aesthetic of ours, was too violent and “ghetto.” At school, we would be told to take out our big bamboo style gold earrings and to remember that one day we would be professional women. Apparently professional women didn’t look like us.
I felt embarrassed about looking the way I looked and liking the things I liked
Imagine my surprise then, as a woman who has left a lot of those “ghetto” aesthetics behind having being berated by society to look more “classy” only to find that it is now a look that is worn by non-black women in their droves?!
It frustrates me to no end that young black, Latina and east Asian girls have been expressing themselves creatively through hair and nails for decades, and it was frowned upon. Most especially black girls because they are further away in proximity to whiteness when compared to Latinas or East Asian women. I remember being told at my first ever job interview that it would be preferred if my hair could be one colour only. I felt embarrassed about looking the way I looked and liking the things I liked.
Now I think of the offices I’ve worked in as an adult and it’s like a shift has taken place. White “professional” women are in the office with long vamp style nails and their hair is not one colour. That’s ok though, because these women are “quirky.” We have the Kardashian sisters who have built an entire media empire on the aesthetics historically ascribed to black women.
As an example; for centuries, black women have braided their hair in styles as a part of culture, yet suddenly the Kardashians get a half-hearted braid in imitation of our styles, and news articles proclaim that they have “invented a new style and it’s called boxer braids.” Kim K recently had her acrylic nails pierced with tiny rings through the tip of each nail, and the media were in a frenzy about this “new trend.” New trend where? we alleged “ghetto girls” were piercing the tip of our nails and adding cute charms, for years!
It is all consumption and erasure. Mainstream culture has a predominantly white gaze and oftentimes aspects of culture ingrained in marginalised communities are taken and repackaged to be sold to a white audience. The problem with this is that the marginalised community that this commodity has been stolen from, rarely get mentioned or paid. In fact, what these communities receive in return for their creativity that is so clearly profitable, is a myth that they are worthless, vulgar and not talented.
“Ghetto” is dog-whistle terminology for “black”
So, what is the truth?! My slicked-up hair, my bamboo earrings and my long colourful nails look trashy and “ghetto” when I don them, but when a woman who is white takes on this very same look, it is then edgy and quirky?? Ok, got it.
“Ghetto” is dog-whistle terminology for “black” and it is a way that people can speak in a racist manner about things synonymous with black culture, yet hope that the racism they’re expressing is covert. Everything that is referred to as ghetto is making somebody who is not black, very rich while simultaneously being the reason that an actual black person isn’t taken seriously for their creativity and craft.
If you are reading this and you’re getting rather flustered thinking “but people don’t own hairstyles and nail designs!” you are the kind of person that needs to read this piece because you are most probably perpetuating this dynamic that I speak of. Yes, technically people don’t own hairstyles, but if it originated within their culture then at least they should be the face of it when it becomes mainstream?!
At the same time, during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, millions of Africans were taken from their homes and enslaved for centuries. During their enslavement, they were denied the right to speak their languages and celebrate their culture. After that slave trade ended, there was segregation with white people being violently against having to live alongside black people as equals. For black people to be accepted within the work environment, they had to assimilate. They had to attempt to look as close to the white norm as possible, to be treated with a smidgen of respect.
It is so easy to say “let’s put race aside” when you have never had to deal with race being your main dish. What this statement of putting race aside usually means is, not wanting to acknowledge the impact your fashion exploits have on others and simply wanting to enjoy these looks without consequence. That, my friend, is not going to happen for any of us; we are responsible as consumers, to know the ways in which we affect others. I have overheard white women refer to each other as “ghetto” in a playful manner and it has pained me greatly, because they will never know the pain of that term in its weaponised glory.
Ghetto by any other name is still just as black, so enjoy the creativity of my culture but remember to pay me and respect me for it.
Written by Kelechi Okafor