What the white man means when he says "Ghetto"

I got a friend, who named her kid Alexis. Kid look like A Buick.
--Adele Givens

When I was 17, I scooted off to college at Howard University, "the capstone of Negro education." But it just as well could have been "the capstone of Negro wealth." Howard may be the most diverse collection of black people on the planet. I met black people from Montreal, Belize and Iowa. I met black people who spoke Russian and majored in math. I met black Jews. I met black biracials. I met black legacies who could stretch their ties to Howard back through generations. But what really marked me about Howard was that it was the first place I came into contact with black people of incredible means.

While this had practical implications, it's cultural ones are what I carry with me today. I had never heard of Jack and Jill, before I got to Howard, and I thought all black girls dyed their hair red/blue/blond and threw in finger-waves and extensions. It was at Howard that I learned that Tamika was a ghetto name--not an American one. Indeed, Howard was the first place where people didn't make fun of my name, but would stand back, nod and say, "Wow, brother that's deep. What's that mean? How'd you get that name?" You must understand that it was the tradition among a certain sect of students to give themselves African or Arabic names in their first year. I always took pride in telling them that I got my name from my Dad. They were old money--but I was Afrocentric before the word was even invented.

Howard was the first place where I got snapped on for pronouncing "carried" as "curried," for calling "Baltimore," "Baldimore," for calling a "pocket-book," a"pockiebook." The point isn't that Howard was a bastion of upper-class condescension--it most assuredly was not. When you black, everyone gets snapped on, for everything, and I've always found great democracy in that. But my point is that I learned what it meant to be "ghetto" at Howard. But what I've never learned, what I've never quite gotten is the white equivalent.

I've been thinking about this all through this Sarah Palin fiasco. I think within days, people were debating over whether she was, essentially, ghetto.

Here's Reihan for instance:

Attention all those who want to defeat McCain-Palin: please ridicule Sarah Palin. Five kids with silly white trash names! She was the mayor of a small town! Ha! I mean, look at her -- she mustserious? What a joke. Her mere existence is an insult to women. She eats moose, she rides a snowmobile, and she supports drilling. Look at her--she must be dumb! And where did she go to school? I mean, come on! I mean, is McCain

And then:

Yes, ridiculing Palin as a hick and a rube, and devaluing her experience, comes naturally to the kind of people who take Barack Obama seriously as a presidential candidate.

Really? I guess for a certain portion of Obama's base this is true, but I think a lot of black people (a nice-sized portion of Obama's base, no?) have no idea what that means. No disrespect to Reihan, because I don't doubt that some of this is going on. Indeed that's the point--I have no idea what the markers of "ghetto" are for white people. In fact, when I tried to point one out--eating moose--Matt, latte-sipping, Ivy-League elitist that he is, instantly rapped me and noted that eating moose, is in fact, a Northeastern elite delicacy.

I think a lot of black folks probably think Palin has a wierd accent, and that the story for naming her kid "Track" is stupid. But it's not like we have room to talk--I mean, some of us name our kids after alcoholic drinks (Alize, anyone?). Dumb names, if there are such a thing, are a truly multicutural--and multiclass--phenomena. Still, I had no idea that "Willow" was a "blue-collar white" name. I didn't know that having five kids was a marker of being lower-class--especially when all the kids are from the same pairing, and their being well cared for. Now, you can take that for what it's worth, given that I have six brothers and sisters by four mother (all, except me, college grads though!) so maybe I'm a bad judge. But in general, I feel like one of two things is happening. Either this idea of class-criticism is just strawmanship, or I'm blind to the intricate folkways of white people. I, frankly, suspect that it's both. If only I had a white spokesperson to defer to...