Why we aren’t using the term “urban” anymore and why you should consider doing the same
Words: Phoebe Myers
Recently more and more brands have been distancing themselves from the term “urban” – HHV now being one of them. Why? Because its racist, sure, but if someone was to hold a gun to your head and your life depended on giving a definition on what the word urban actually means, would you make it? Chances are not. At least we wouldn’t. Much like with the word caramel no one quite seems to know what urban truly means, yet everyone still has a general idea of what constitutes as urban. A sound, a look… Even if only vague, an image appears, doesn’t it? So let’s talk about that very image, why we find issue with it and why you might too.
But let’s start at the top. What does “urban” really mean?
The word urban derides from the Latin word urbanas and means city or anything relating to it but as the years went by it acquired a couple of new definitions. Some may use it as fashionable, others as a substitute for cool but its most common understanding is black. This is linked to U.S Federal clean-up projects like the Housing Act’s urban renewal programs from the 50s and 60s. These programs involved clearing out blighted areas in inner cities, targeting the homes of mostly black and brown people of color. Because of this, the words urban and black were soon used interchangeably in common parlance and this carried on into the music industry of the 70s. Where one may have wanted to stray away from the overtly crass “black” label and opt for its more subtle, politically correct counterpart “urban”, the word quickly became a welcomed euphemism for black music, artists and performers.
Because “urban music” sounds so much more… palatable, right?
According to music executives and radio hosts, yes: They and other players in the music business were rather disinclined from dropping the word due to it making black artists more marketable to white audiences and advertising agencies. Vacantly enjoying black art in the xenophobic America of the 70s? Preposterous. But swaying ones hips to the fresh sounds of the almost romantic-sounding Genre Urban Contemporary had something alluring to it, a refined quality, perhaps?
Of course, it didn’t take too long until the fashion world picked up on music’s new favourite buzzword as well: Streetwear, a style so reflective of the life, attitude and aesthetic of cities with deep roots in African American culture and history, was consequentially deemed as urban too but this time, the use of the word was somewhat fitting – at least viewed at surface level. After all, going by its original meaning, urban does mean anything relating to cities. Urban Style or Urban Clothing became synonymous with streetwear but sadly the term left its probably only fitting ballpark yet again and was used as a descriptor for black artists and designers within the fashion-sphere as a whole – even if their respective works had nothing to do with street culture. Despite being a lazy blanket term inhabiting detrimental stereotypes and negative connotations due to its proximity to blackness, urban stood strong in every industry it was placed in and became the diplomatic overcoat for racist pooling. Accepted by the masses, voices of disapproval to be overshadowed to be heard.
With its original meaning nearly completely lost, the use of the word urban as a descriptor in fashion, art and music today feels… uncomfortable to say the very least and that discomfort has become too great to look past, especially now with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past years. The word has become the subject of well-deserved scrutiny and the discourse around it has made way for a larger conversation about language, its constant progression and the adjustments those very changes require.
Language matters and so do its connotations.
This is something we have learned and acknowledged. There is no separation of a word, its history and societal meaning, even if said meaning may not align with its original definition. One simply can’t rid a word that has been weaponized, racialized and politized to the extent that urban has, of its implications in order to convey ideas that have already been tarnished by the racist misuse of the word.
Describing something as urban marginalizes black and brown people, shoves them into belittling, ill-fitting boxes for the sake of convenience, creating bounds where there should be none. Even if used without malice, the word carries enough weight for intention to be a redundant factor.
This is why we have decided to change the name of our clothing department from HHV Urban Fashion to HHV Clothing. Not only is it more inclusive but in the face of all of the above, urban simply can’t be used in that context any longer.
It’s not enough to simply denounce racism or to vow to do better moving forward. Without learning, listening and fixing the wrongs that have been done, there is no improving, no growing, and no healing.
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