Huh, Ghetto Burger?

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“Ghetto Burger.” Uh-oh! Dangerous words, those. Wouldn’t you think?

I ignited a firestorm by inserting those words into a global conversation a few years ago. But what else was new? It was important for me to live up to my “forever the provocateur” billing. Shucks, if one listens to the hateful language spewed by 2016 aspirants the White House these days, “ghetto burger” pales by comparison.

Here’s what happened.

There was a glitzy new hamburger joint two miles from my house when we lived in Texas. I decided to check it out late one afternoon. The menu listed every kind of hamburger imaginable, including an “Elvis Burger.” But one in particular got my attention – “Ghetto Burger” (topped with chili, cheese, grilled onions, bacon and grilled jalapenos). Yes, “Ghetto Burger,” I kid you not. You read that right.

But I settled on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, small order of fries and a Coke and headed for a table all the while sorting through my reactions to this menu item. Those reactions ran the full gamut, from mild surprise and a bit of amusement at the outset, to disgust after allowing all this to sink in.

I picked up packets of ketchup and mayonnaise and took a seat at a table facing that menu and gauged the reactions of patrons who represented a spectrum of diversity – black, white, Asian, Latino, old, young, families, young men with pants hanging off their behinds, you name it. I finished my meal and left.

The problem was that I was unwilling to leave well enough alone. So I sent this “experience” out to my 100+ person global diversity consortium for reactions. And boy did they react. Folks weighed in over a span of five days. Whites, Asians, Indians, Latinos – and of course black folks – leapt emotion-first into the fray. And like a sick arsonist, I sat on the sidelines watching the volleys go back and forth, enjoying every minute of my, eh, “handiwork.”

Conversations zig-zagged from what constitutes a “Ghetto Burger,” to assumptions about the ethnicity of the restaurant owner, to “political correctness” gone too far. As adamant as some saw this as racist, others were less quick to see it that way. Others vacillated with the ebb and flow of other responses.

Here’s how the first respondent weighed in:

“Terry, this one is interesting. It goes to show that the restaurant appreciates the taste buds of a particular community or group of people and have it on their menu. Similar to McDonald’s, appreciating the local taste buds in India and making aloo-tikki (potato patty) burgers which they don’t offer elsewhere in the world. If the ‘ghetto burger’ is a vegetarian one, I would love to have it during my next visit to Dallas.”

That response got the ball rolling, beginning with this one:

“My first question was who made that decision. Is the owner African-American? What is the restaurant’s location? While I don’t necessarily agree with the name, I have a different reaction depending on who named this item and who owns this location.”

“Whoa,” responded a member in response. “Before we go and burn the place down, I have a few questions. What if the owner is black? What if the restaurant owner, regardless of race, grew up in the ghetto? What if other people of color don’t have a problem with it, especially those raised in the ghetto? Are we being too PC?”

That one threw the floodgates wide open. Moments later, a member from New York stepped in:

“I grew up in a ghetto and loved it. It surprises me that there are such negative thoughts about the ghetto, but the goodness in such communities is downplayed and rarely shared. It has its issues, but the word does not offend me because it is a rich part of my upbringing. To deny it would be to make light of the experiences and the people I grew up with. I would not trade one minute of my experiences in the ghetto.

Next we heard from a member in California.

“Terry, I was ready to fly to Texas and join in a protest march at your “ghetto burger” restaurant, talk to the owner and bring my huelga (Spanish word for strike) signs back out from my college days. Then I read the courageous e-mail from another member about his experience living in a ghetto and what that experience was like for him. I grew up in the barrio and can relate to the many wonderful memories I experienced as a young boy.”

Now that reaction sparked the following response from a member in Tennessee:

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!  I feel compelled to weigh in on the good-life-in-the-ghetto discussion. On the one hand, I agree with the comments that spoke to the fact there was a certain amount of togetherness in the ghetto, but I have to tell you that I can’t, in my wildest imagination, get to the place where I want to romanticize it. How many of us former residents of the ghetto would be willing to leave our current neighborhoods to live in the ghetto?”

Then we heard from a person in Texas:

“I’ve been tracking this exchange about the ‘ghetto burger’ menu item. I am white, understand the derogatory connotation often associated with the word “ghetto,” and appreciate the variety of opinions members have been expressing”.

Towards the end of day five, a member offered the following “tutorial” on the word “ghetto.”

“I’m Jewish and visited the Jewish ghetto in Venice, the area in which all Jews were forced to live from the 16th to the 18th century. The word ‘ghetto,’ used throughout Europe for minority groups, originated in Venice. Ghetto is an old Venetian dialect for “foundry.”

Although the original ghetto was periodically expanded, land was limited and quarters always cramped. With the arrival of Napoléon in 1797, the ghetto was disbanded and Jews were free to move wherever they liked, but the Jews realized full freedom only in the late 19th century with the founding of the Italian state. On the eve of World War II, there were about 1,500 Jews left in the ghetto.”

And finally, this one from a member in Ohio:

“Just as I thought we’d finished this discussion about the “ghetto burger,” I’m mindful of something that was reported to me. One of our business presidents walked through the HR area. Two managers shared with me that they heard him say – ‘oh, this is just the HR ghetto.’ They were appalled.”

Hey, words are powerful. And as we’ve seen, certain words can set off a firestorm of reactions.

But here’s the deal; nobody knows every word that may cause offense. That’s just impossible. And on top of that, the meaning of words and interpretation of words are influenced by intent, context, plus the nature of the relationship between the sender and the receiver. And if you add the personal histories and experiences that certain words may conjure up, you’re looking at the potential for a firestorm.

So what do we do?

For starters, I’d suggest getting familiar with the lexicon of words that may hurt. Philip Herbst’s “The Color of Words; an Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States,” is an excellent resource for that learning. This book defines 850 ethnic and racial terms and expressions that carry ethnic bias, or are commonly regarded today as controversial or confusing. It explores how meanings vary by social context or circumstance and how it changes over time.

And at a day-to-day practical level, seize those inevitable verbal bombshells – including those that seem to flow almost daily from the lips of Presidential candidates – as teachable and learnable moments.

So buckle your seatbelt and ready yourself for the next firestorm. It’s on the way. I’m putting the finishing touches on it right now.

Trust me!

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© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer, story teller and senior associate with Diversity Wealth. He is the founder of the Global Diversity Connection Consortium, a member of the Cross-Cultural Academy, Contributing Writer with The Chattanooga News Chronicle, the American Diversity Report and New York-based Catalyst. Visit his page at: http://mystoriesonlineblog.com/ He can also be reached at wwhowar3@gmail.com or terry@diversitywealth.com

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3 comments on “Huh, Ghetto Burger?”

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