'A benefits ghetto', 'tending more towards ghettoisation' are just some of the phrases used to describe the neighbourhood I live in by those in the media and positions of authority. To many, the use of the word 'ghetto' may appear unproblematic, harmless, used as shorthand to describe areas of poverty and decline. Yet every time I hear my hometown described in such a fashion, whereby an entire group of people are portrayed as unsophisticated, cut adrift from the rest of the 'sophisticated' population, it angers and frustrates me, not least of all because the assumptions underlying it's use are untrue, but also of how dehumanising and counter-productive the term is.
According to the Oxford Dictionary the word Ghetto is defined as 'A part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups'. It's a word that has been deployed in a pejorative sense, bundling together race, class, poverty, and economic status, and is used more often than not, to describe entire areas inhabited by fellow citizens of a country as inferior. When where you live is constantly described in such terms, it makes you feel as though you don't belong, that you're not equal, that you've failed to buy into a homogenous set of values that everybody else abides by, even if such values have never been articulated.
At present the word ghetto is used by those in positions of authority, whether it be the right-wing tabloid press, academics or politicians to describe areas of the country that don't match up to a particular set of standards. Yet what are those standards? Wealth, the manner in which certain people dress, the type of housing that they live in? What's even more problematic is the way in which the term is more often than not used to refer to areas that have a significant BME population. For all the talk about improving social cohesion and a more integrated society, describing areas with significant BME populations as 'ghettos', can hardly bode well.
The author Toni Morrison once said that 'definitions belong to the definers, not the defined' going on to claim that 'the definers want the power to name'. When those with power refer to areas as ghettos, they are also exercising power, exercising it in such a way that problems such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment are made out to be the fault of those living in such neighbourhoods. Yes, I live in a town with a high degree of poverty, especially child poverty, which is at 22% along with one of the highest homelessness rates in the country. Yet failing to understand the real causes that led to such a situation, including industrial decline, austerity and years of neglect allows those responsible for public policy off the hook.
Describing an area as a ghetto is also dehumanising, for it allows those in positions of authority to overlook individuals and simply create boxes within which to put communities in. If we wish to create a cohesive society, one in which all are valued, it's about time the negative labelling of areas stopped.