(I would like to preface this article with the fact that I am speaking directly to white folks)
You have probably heard the term in a variety of ways — urban radio, urban music, urban lifestyle, urban contempary, urban art, urban dance, etc. — but do you actually know the connotation and or history behind the term urban? Most likely, since the majority of the time the term is used, it’s actually being used to describe something that’s Black — Black radio, Black music, Black lifestyle, Black “contemporary,” Black art, etc. The real question is, then: Why are you still using the term? Is it because it’s all you know or how you were raised? Or do you feel safer using the word urban rather than Black? Let’s examine a few things.
Urban is defined in numerous ways, mostly depending on who is giving you the definition. According to Dictionary.com, though, it has five different meanings:
1. of, relating to, or designating a city or town: densely populated urban areas.
2. living, located, or taking place in a city: urban rooftop gardening.
3. characteristic of or accustomed to cities; citified: He’s an urban type — I can’t picture him enjoying a whole week at our cabin in the woods.
4. of or relating to the experience, lifestyle, or culture of African Americans living in economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods: Their first album had a hard, urban vibe.
5. Offensive. (used as a euphemism for Black or African American, rather than in reference to cities or their residents): a drug problem that particularly impacts the urban residents in this small town.
If you look at these definitions and read them carefully, then you can see that in four out of five of them, the term is relating in some way to a city. One through three mention a city: living or relating to it, taking place in it, or being “accustomed” to cities. In four, it mentions the “experience, lifestyle, or culture of African Americans living in economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods.” So, how did city, inner-city, and African Americans conjoin to somehow become interchangable?
In the United States, in the 1940s-1950s, there was a movement, if you will, called the “white flight” in which white residents moved out of cities and into the suburbs. During this time, the latter half of the Great Migration is happening, in which thousands of Black Americans moved from the Southern portion of the United States and either relocated up north or out to western and mid-western cities. Then, an industrial restructuring occurred in these cities, which led to major losses of jobs, leaving formerly middle-class working populations suffering from poverty. Even before the industrial jobs disappeared, when Black families had the means to purchase their own properties, they weren’t allowed because this is where white folks lived. Thus, the origin of an insulting generalisation of city, inner city, and Black and Brown communities began.
Additionally, federal clean-up projects like the Housing Act’s “urban renewal program,” which was established in 1949, fundamentally targeted underserved neighborhoods where poor Black and Brown communities were concentrated, deepening the interchangeability of “urban” and “Black” in the public vocabulary. The term urban has also been used by prominent figures, usually politicians, to refer to high crime and poor work ethic in a way that effectively connects crime, violence, and laziness with Black Americans.
In the music and entertainment industries, urban is used to describe Black music and entertainment, sometimes even including white artists whose sound is derivitative of their Black counterparts. There are genres and award categories named “Urban” and “Urban Contempary.” In the fashion world, it’s used to generalize Black style as “urban streetwear.” Rene MacDonald, founder and creator of Lisou London, a fashion brand based in London, states, “Corresponding ‘the streets’ with a low income, typically Black area, ‘urban’ instantly becomes offensive shorthand to define Black culture.” Additionally, in the art world, often times Black art or Black-inspired art is synonymous with “urban art.” If you search the tag #urbanart on Instagram, you will find a plethora of white folks standing in front of grafitti art, which isn’t urban art, but actually hip-hop culture — it’s literally one of the four founding pillars: Grafitti, Breaking, Djing, and Emceeing. And hip-hop is Black culture, period. For instance, this photo from a white artist’s account of a crocheted Black male holding a vinyl record is tagged #urbanart on Instagram, but it’s actually Black-inspired art or hip-hop inspired art. Using the term urban to describe anything that is inherently Black is offensive and rooted in racism and racial stereotyping of Black communities.
By removing the word Black and instead using urban, not only are you erasing the diversity of the Black experience, you are also erasing Black culture’s influence on nearly everything — music, fashion, art, dance, etc. You don’t live in an urban area, you live in an underserved community or just plain in the city. You don’t make urban art or urban jewelry, you are influenced by Black culture and want to market your products to a Black audience. It’s okay to say Black — just make sure the ‘B’ is capitalized.
Bogue, Donald J. and Emerson Seim (Sept-Dec 1956) Components of Population Change in Suburban and Central City Populations of Standard metropolitan Areas: 1940 to 1950 Rural Sociology.
All other references linked in article.