Referring to Labour MP Chuka Umunna as ‘ghetto’ and the racial semantics of certain commonly used wo


Labour MP and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna

I was reading an article about Labour MP and shadow business secreatary Chuka Umunna in the Daily Mail (I was lured into the Mail by a headline, but soon found myself wishing I had avoided the right-wing paper as I usually do) last week when I came across a sentence which, even by the Daily Mail’s standards, I found to be shocking and highly offensive. In the said article the writer had made reference to Mr Umunna as a ‘one-time DJ [who] shimmers through Westminster to a soundtrack of ghetto chic.’ I had to re-read. Surely he did not just indirectly refer to one of Britain’s highly educated leading politicians as ‘ghetto.’ Oh but he did. A quick definition of ‘ghetto’: ‘a part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups’. There is only one thing in the definition of ‘ghetto’ that is relevant to Mr Umunna and that is ‘minority group,’ the Streatham MP being mixed-race (his father Nigerian). Would this writer have referred to a white politician of Mr Umunna’s standing as ‘ghetto’? I don’t think so.

Labour MP and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna

So then I got to thinking about certain words which are heavily weighted with racial suggestion that are casually thrown around in day-to-day use without the users of the language possibly even considering the meaning of their words. Words like ‘gangster’, ‘ghetto’ and ‘urban’ have had their original meanings corrupted and become poorly disguised euphemisms for ‘black’. For example, ‘gangster’ is commonly used to refer to the appearance of someone (black) – say in sportswear with gold jewellery – irrespective of the fact that they have no affiliation whatsoever to gang life or even a lifestyle of crime. Similarly, the entirely vague and somewhat meaningless new genre of music labelled ‘urban’ that clubs so often advertise on posters and websites encompasses various genres that are dominated by black artists i.e. R&B, hip-hop, grime. Labelling these genres as ‘urban’ is not entirely invalid, given that hip-hop and grime very much do stem from the streets of cities, however, ‘urban’ is not used to refer to, say, EDM or techno, which also – taking the literal meaning of ‘urban’ – should, therefore, be considered ‘urban music.’ Once again, then, it is clear that some words have steered far from their original meanings to simply become synonymous with ‘black’.

The mainstream media is most guilty of creating a subliminal language that allows readers to identify that the person(s) being described is black, or conjure up the image of a black person in their head, without ever having to actually use the word ‘black’. Think about terms like ‘thug’ or even ‘inner-city’. These words’ meanings have been perverted through carefully calculated means of association, for example the constantly having the word ‘thug’ appear in headlines next to the image of a black person who has committed a crime but far less often next to the image of a white criminal.

Where words are being converted into euphemisms for ‘black’, particularly in a negative context, the harm done is immeasurable ; consider a child (of any race) who, through the power of association and absorbing what fills mainstream media, has learned to equate the words ‘thug’ and ‘gangster’ with black people … What kind of society does that make for? One where people get along harmoniously as one, or, one where racism and racial inequality are rife? One where young black people have learned to devalue themselves and underestimate their own potential to do great things?

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

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