The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

Email Newsletter icon
Follow us on:
Share Youth Communication Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Ghetto Not-So-Fabulous
Ebony Coleman
headshot

Growing up in the “ghetto” was a choice that I did not have; it was simply a consequence of poverty that I had to live with. Unfortunately, a lot of bad behavior is associated with blacks and Latinos from the ghetto, but I never saw why I had to act like a wreck.

My mother, who was also raised in the ghetto, taught me not to go out with a rag on my head, or with the crack of my butt showing. Basically, she taught me that I could be “from the ghetto, but not of the ghetto.” That meant not joining in with the girls strutting around rolling and popping their necks, or letting our home smell like piss and garbage. I always thought the people doing those things were ridiculous—just as ridiculous as the people who appear on a website you might know, HotGhettoMess.com.

Seeing HotGhettoMess.com for the first time was just like looking out my window. HotGhettoMess.com publishes foolish pictures and videos alongside humorous captions. The photos, which are sent in by viewers of the site, show things like toddlers flipping the bird, big ladies wearing too-tight clothes that look like they’re from the Infant Stripper Depot, and tons of other examples of people acting “ghetto.”

There are also quotes from many different intellectuals, celebrities, and politicians. For example, next to an image of a woman passed out next to a bunch of liquor bottles you might see the W.E.B. DuBois quote: “Either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.”

‘Our Communities Are in Shambles’

The site’s creator is Jam Donaldson, a young, African-American lawyer who says that her purpose is to make minorities aware of the ignorance that they reflect. “It started out as a sort of shame-on-you kind of thing,” Donaldson told Washington City Paper. (She didn’t respond to interview requests from YCteen.) “I was tired of getting [e-mailed] all of these pictures of people at the prom, street fights, and people with grills, all of this ridiculous stuff… So I was like, how can I use these pictures in a Web site to make some sort of social statement?” On an editor’s note at HotGhettoMess.com, Donaldson explained further: “I use my writing to challenge our communities to look in the mirror and take an accounting of exactly what you see. How can we fight for large-scale systematic reform when our communities are in shambles?”

After the website gained popularity, she produced a TV series called “We Got to Do Better” which ran on BET and targeted minorities who were lacking manners and education. She also writes a blog called “Conversate is Not a Word,” where she offers commentary on politics, black pop culture, and whatever else is on her mind. Donaldson’s technique throughout is to bluntly present the ignorant behaviors of minorities and hope that the resulting shame or embarrassment that both viewers and subjects may feel will convince them to behave better.

Hopeless Cases?

I get what Donaldson is trying to do. “Ghetto” behavior shows a lack of education, class, and manners, and it keeps us down. It also symbolizes a lack of hope. I honestly believe that those who conduct themselves in an extreme “ghetto” manner just don’t believe that they can do better, or don’t see that there is any reason for them to do better. I think that “ghetto” behaviors like drinking too much, dressing inappropriately, dismissing education, and fighting over nothing must be eliminated if poor minorities want to be successful.

Yet, even though Donaldson’s reasons for creating this website are good, I doubt it’s an effective way to change people. I know that if a photo of me wearing or doing something stupid ended up on the site, I would be upset and embarrassed, and would change my behavior. But, then again, most of the people in the images probably don’t think there’s anything wrong with their behavior or they would never have posed for the photos. In those cases, it seems to me the biggest effect is simply to provide a bunch of laughs for others.

The other problem with a website like Hot Ghetto Mess is that it portrays poor blacks and Latinos in a terrible light. It makes us look like all we do is brawl and feed Corona beer to our babies. If a white kid living in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa sees it, he might think that every black and Latino person—or at least every poor black or Latino person—behaves like that. Any racist feelings or stereotypes about minorities would seem valid and appropriate.

She’s No Oprah

This is a critique Donaldson has obviously heard before. In her Frequently Asked Questions page, she writes, “I know that a lot of this behavior is the product of bigger societal race and class issues—OK, knowing that, now what? Should we rely on that reasoning for the next 400 years?” She also wrote, “Some of you ask, ‘Well, what are you doing to help the problem?’ Well, I turned down a lucrative law firm job to become a public interest lawyer helping the poor in Washington, D.C. So, you can kiss my black ass.”

But she also implies that she didn’t create the website to be positive, and that she’s well aware of racism she could be fueling. She writes, “For those who think I should have created a site that featured only positive images I kindly point you to the Oprah show, Black Enterprise, or Essence.”

I agree that not every media image of a black or Latino person has to be positive. People do often request or demand media that is more “appropriate” or “innocent” or “clean,” when they really want media to reflect better on a certain group. But then they’re just asking to hide what we already know is very much real. Once you hide the truth you might as well live on psychotropic drugs and go around believing that rocks are made out of chocolate-covered marshmallows. You need to face reality if you want to make it better.

Lopsided View

My problem, instead, is that the images on HotGhettoMess.com don’t reflect the full reality of poor minority neighborhoods any more than Essence does. The way my family members and I act is not portrayed on HotGhettoMess.com. We don’t dress in absurd outfits, have poor hygienic practices, or raise our children inappropriately.

There is one small section of the site, called “Not Ghetto Mess,” that shows accomplished black and Latino people who have risen above the “ghetto” mindset. Unfortunately, there are only five entries, and those entries aren’t about normal people who behave correctly—as I think most minorities do. Instead, this section features people who have money, like President Barack Obama and Aaron McGruder, the “Boondocks” cartoonist. It’s easy to be a model citizen once you have the kind of money they do, but it’s another thing to conduct yourself correctly even when you have nothing.

Although I have problems with her methods, it’s fair to say that Donaldson and HotGhettoMess.com are creating room for black and Latino people to be bluntly honest about some of what we see in our communities. She gives all African-Americans and Hispanics a chance to voice their opinions about the unruly, often destructive behavior they see, which could be a step toward helping them address it.

Enter our writing contest for a chance to win $$ and make your voice heard!
(NYC-2010-09-09)

Visit Our Online Store