“You should stop hanging out with Roberto, he’s kinda ghetto.” I heard this exchange from Latina students in the hallway of the high school I was tutoring at as a college freshman. There was something about the girl’s choice of words that bothered me, especially since I knew the kid they were talking about. Roberto (pseudonym) was a good kid by all accounts, did excellent work in class, and was well liked by his peers and teachers.
It took me a couple more weeks at work to figure out what she meant by ‘ghetto’, and when I did, I was even more bothered than before.
Apparently, there were serious problems at this school, stemming from Black and Latino students picking on other Latino students who had recently immigrated to the country. By these students’ definition, ‘ghetto’ was just a cruel word to describe students that weren’t exactly like them.
I wish this was an isolated situation, but my experience working with students has said otherwise. At the high school I worked at in Atlanta, Georgia (the school was 99 percent African-American), students that had recently moved to the U.S. from Africa were often disrespected by other students. Similarly, many of my Asian-American friends talked about kids that were derogatorily labeled FOBs (fresh-off-the-boat) in high school.
Even at the school I’m working at now (which is 99 percent Latino), some students are ridiculed just because they’ve only been in this country a few years.
There’s been a lot of focus lately on eliminating bullying in (and out of) schools, and rightfully so. Kids are often bullied and ridiculed because of things they can’t control: the way they look, and the things that they wear. But, another reality is that kids get mistreated everyday simply because they haven’t been in the country long enough. And the worst part is that it is often done by kids that are only one or two generations removed from being in the same position.
Beyond bullying, this type of internalized racism perpetuates divisions in the Latino community. Words like ‘ghetto,’ ‘wetback,’ and ‘spic’ (and a host of others) can create an “us” vs. “them” mentality and can promote (among other things) the idea that you aren’t good enough until you’ve assimilated past the desired point (whatever that is).
Sadly, kids don’t always know what they do, and many times, they can’t even comprehend the weight of their actions/words. I have my mother to thank for making me feel like crap as a kid when I stupidly said the word ‘mojado’ in reference to a Latino on TV.
So while this doesn’t necessarily excuse the younger generation kids, it does give us, as adults, responsibility. After all, children who grow up believing that they’re better than others simply because of where they were born or how long they’ve been in this country may very well grow up to become adults who believe the same.