03/17/2014 11:42 am ET Updated May 17, 2014

The "G" Word: Say the Right Thing

The word peppers casual conversation, is woven into academic papers, dominates town hall meetings and online commentaries. In New York, it's everywhere, seems to whoosh by like the wind of the L train arriving later than expected. Its meaning is tenuous, seems to change significance at will, depending on context -- it's amorphous, euphemistic, inflammatory. The "G" word: Gentrification.

The word most recently stirred up a commotion at a lecture by influential filmmaker Spike Lee at Pratt University in Brooklyn when an audience member asked about the purported benefits of gentrification. Lee, most known for his 1989 film, Do The Right Thing, about the conflict between African American and Italian residents of Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant, proceeded to respond to the student's question in an impassioned seven minute rant about how his childhood neighborhood, Fort Greene, has changed since it was a primarily African American neighborhood. An excerpt:

I grew up here in New York. It's changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn't picked up every motherfuckin' day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good...The police weren't around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o'clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.

In his speech, Lee objected to the hypocrisy of the amount of attention given to his neighborhood now that wealthy whites have moved into the neighborhood, a condition he refers to as "Christopher Columbus syndrome."

Before gentrification, social ills were ignored, but now that money and white privilege have changed the demographics, neighborhood conditions have improved. This institutionalized gap in civil services points to racism, i.e. different treatment of a person as a result of their race and/or economic standing.

Many have already written articles debating the merits Lee's speech, but that is not my main goal for this post. Instead, I want to use comments on the speech and in other forums to show how misused the word "gentrification" is. Though most innocuously defined as an economic shift of a neighborhood, gentrification has taken on a far more loaded meaning with many interpretations.

The word comes tucked into bed with long-standing issues of race, class, privilege and oppression and harmfully oversimplifies the issues. I want to explore how the word is used euphemistically, a safe word that makes it okay to be pretty egregiously racist.

A comment on the article on Lee's speech:

Funny, when black people criticize whites and stick together as a group, you think it's fine. But when whites criticize blacks or stick together as a group, you magically label it "racist." What a tool. Ever take a course in logic, idiot?

Though perhaps we should discount whoever wrote this comment as a troll, the myth of reverse racism can be used as a justification for gentrification. There is nothing "magic" about whites criticizing blacks being racist, while blacks criticizing whites is not, and saying it is completely ignores history, which today manifests itself as privilege. Though (except perhaps behind the anonymity of a message board) no one will openly say, "I hate black people," or "black people make me uncomfortable," the word "gentrification" has given people a way to say it in another way.

Another comment from the same page:

There is no such thing as "racism"... There is only tribalism. Blacks tend to support blacks and whites tend to support whites.

This comment is a little more complicated. While the first part of the quote is easily discounted, the second part raises some important questions about the controversy that New York gentrification has introduced. The real estate developers who have driven up property values and driven out long-time, often minority residents do, in fact, help their wealthy, and often white, demography, while harming those who lived there before. "Christopher Columbus syndrome" indeed.

The next comment comes from another online forum, but provides an even more blatant example of how euphemistically the word is used:

Q: Is Manhattan Valley (West 96th-West 106th St, between the Upper West Side-proper and Morningside Heights, where Columbia is located) a good place to raise kids?

A: The bad things about it are that it's not totally gentrified just yet, so the demographic can be a little shaky in certain sections of the neighborhood.

This response uses gentrification as a verb that directly translates to "whitened." The demographics can be shaky? This poster relates demographic "shakiness" or diversity as a disadvantage of raising a family in this neighborhood. The person who wrote this comment would probably dispute a charge of being called racist, but she can hide behind the word "gentrification" to say that she thinks having her own children exposed to demographics or classes other than her own would harm them.

We need to be more careful about how we use this word. Seen either from the perspective of the blighted neighborhood, or from the people moving in, the word is damaging and dehumanizing. It's an easy way out, a shield. As Ellen Lynch, a longtime resident of Oakland, another city whose demographics are changing, aptly noted, "It's code for a bunch of other things."

She went on to say,

Sometimes when people use gentrifier, they truly don't want to engage... Gentrifying? I've been here since 1978, I'm just fixing my house up.... [it's] a horrible insult and it's laden with a lot of other suggestions, like white supremacist, wealthy, carpetbagger, displacer, anti-low-income.

So maybe next time before throwing out the word "gentrification," we need to look at what's hidden underneath: privilege, oppression, racism, shared and changing demographic histories. Perhaps the first step towards solving this issue is understanding what the words we are using even mean. We should continue to ask questions that dig deeper, like Lee is asking:

Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why's there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why's the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!