Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Ghetto

"Oh really," said my Thursday-night date after I mentioned what neighborhood I live in, "It seems like some parts of Roxbury are nice, and some parts are really ghetto."

I've been thinking a lot about his offhand comment ever since. I've told it to a few friends, and gotten mixed reactions: "I've heard a lot worse on first dates," "I'd say that's a dealbreaker for sure," "He wasn't thinking," and "He just meant it's a bit rundown in parts."

I know he wasn't really thinking about what he was saying, but I do think it's a dealbreaker for me (one of a number of dealbreakers: the fact that conversation didn't flow, I wasn't attracted to him, etc). I want to date someone who is thoughtful about the way they use language, and who is aware that in discussions of city neighborhoods many factors of race and economic status come into play. Someone who knows that the word "ghetto" comes from the separation of a group of people (Jews) in Venice, and that its use could be taken as an implication that it is a place where poor black people live, with the understanding that it would not be desirable to live in such a place.

Over the years, I have had to think a lot about the way I talk about the places I've lived and taught, because so many people have thoughtless reactions like my date's. I have emphasized how much I loved my students in Bed-Stuy, even while admitting how difficult it was to teach them. That I hated the cookie-cutter uniformity of the families in the wealthy suburb of Boston I taught in last year, while loving them each individually. How I admired the strong neighborhood community in the Brooklyn neighborhood I lived in with La Moustache, but felt uncomfortable with the fact that they prayed at community garden meetings. And, finally, how great it is to live where I do now, surrounded by all kinds of people: old, young, rich, poor, families, singles, black, white, straight, gay. All of them overwhelmingly kind and neighborly.

I was startled when a form of the same word came up on Friday during my date with an adorable Hipster Librarian. "It became ghettoized," he said, referring perhaps to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was born or to some part of Germany he's been interested in exploring, I forget which. In any case, he knew exactly what it meant and he was using it precisely, with a full and complete understanding of the word and its history.

That, and the fact that when he went to the bathroom he left me reading material -- a treatise by an 18th century Irish philosopher -- left me utterly charmed. (And I have to admit, also the fact that I haven't dated someone so cute in years.) Go Hipster Librarian!

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