The Mean Streets Of Columbia? Talking to My Kids About Race, Class, Crime
My kids must know our neighborhood's not a ghetto.
“Some guy got arrested on our street today,” volunteered the 13-year-old when I got home. “There were like, five cop cars.”
“Crummy ghetto neighborhood,” added his 11-year-old brother.
My family lives in an older townhouse community near the Owen Brown Village Center. Our neighborhood is populated by government employees, scientists, HVAC technicians, and people with housing vouchers—residents from all over the world and from around the way. There are always kids playing in the cul-de-sac and people working on their lawns.
Aaaaaand there are regular visits by the police, and young men hanging out smoking marijuana outside one of the end units, and cars that pull up for five or 10 minutes at all hours of the day and then screech away.
My kids' school, Cradlerock, has terrific teachers and great Gifted and Talented classes. It also has some of the lowest test scores and highest percentage of kids receiving free breakfast and lunch in Columbia.
“This is one of the richest counties in the whole country,” I sputter at my little ingrates. “And Columbia was founded on the principle of racial integration. A ghetto is a place where people are forced to live on the basis of race or religion.”
I remember moving here in high school 20-some years ago from an economically depressed and racially polarized town in Michigan. I was blown away by the sheer wealth of this place and the degree of racial integration.
Twenty-some years later, I can see that Columbia has its own poverty and racial fault lines lurking beneath the Benetton-ad exterior. But when my kids throw out the word “ghetto,” it ticks me off.
It reminds me that Columbia is the only reality they know.
I tell them, “A lot of people who don't know what 'ghetto' really means think it means 'poor and black.' If you call our neighborhood a ghetto, people will think it's because a lot of our neighbors are black. Then you sound like a racist. And it's not like the white people around here aren't getting arrested or selling dope as much as anyone else.”
My kids will grow up with their own preferences and prejudices, that's inevitable. I don't care about teaching them to be “politically correct.”
I just never want to hear them claim they didn't know a word or phrase might be offensive to people from an ethnic or religious background different from ours.
If we let them throw around words like “ghetto” without at least making sure they know the history and unspoken implications behind the word, we wouldn't be doing our job as parents.
So the word “ghetto” doesn't pass unchallenged when my kids use it.
When the cops show up two or three times in one week instead of their usual once a month, however, the word “slum” springs to mind. But I'll wait for them to come up with that one on their own.