Among life's few certainties, perhaps only one thing trumps death and taxes. It is certain and unquestionable that any statement beginning, "I don't mean to be racist, but..." will end with an assertion of unmitigated racism.
So, when the app developers behind SketchFactor wrote on their blog, "Who we're not: racists, bigots, sexists. Any discriminatory posts will be deleted," they should have included a massive, glaring "BUT." SketchFactor, after all, is the new smartphone app that enables users to avoid "sketchy" areas in their cities. Crowdsourced user input and publicly available data allows the app to determine the "sketchiness" of the locale.
'This idea of "sketchiness" is the sole purview of the racist and classist. "Sketchy to whom?" one must ask.'
For those of you not fluent in yuppie, "sketchy" designates areas that make privileged white people nervous because they are scared of groups of not-white people and can't find a nice place for brunch. And while there are grim and violent realities about certain neighborhoods — which it takes another kind of blasé white privilege to ignore — this idea of "sketchiness" is the sole purview of the racist and classist. "Sketchy to whom?" one must ask.
Well, let's consider the duo who created the app which, by the way, is a finalist in the NYC BigApps competition and scheduled to launch today. White lady Allison McGuire, one creator, possesses the yuppie trifecta. She used to work at a non-profit, she also used to live in D.C., and now she resides in New York's West Village, where people own entire townhouses with manicured window boxes, the going monthly rent for a closet is $3,000 and food staples include truffle french fries and $20 kale salads. If the plot of The Purge came to pass in reality, I might head to the West Village first.
McGuire created the app with electrical engineer Daniel (Dan) Herrington, who is white, has a beard, and looks like his name sounds. McGuire wanted to create the app because she had found herself in "sketchy" areas in DC. Having lived in that city myself, I can attest to the severity with which the city is divided into rich and poor areas, and that the class fault-lines align with those of race.
Perhaps I should be more generous to McGuire; perhaps she was rightly "sketched-out" by the leering frat guys in Adams Morgan, or the chino-glad denizens of Georgetown (where the vagaries of public transport have helped create a near-all-white enclave). Or perhaps McGuire wanted to create an app to inform smartphone users of the relative sketchiness in halls of Capitol Hill or the Politico offices. I'm guessing this was not, however, the app's origin story.
'The app is not built for us as young, white people. As far as we're concerned, racial profiling is "sketchy"'
While the app founders did not immediately respond to VICE News request for comment, McGuire told Crain's that her experience navigating D.C. streets "as a young woman" prompted SketchFactor's creation. And, to be sure, street harassment is a consistent and painful reality for women as well as individuals perceived as gay and other marginalized identities. An app that highlighted hotspots of this sort of street harassment could indeed serve some good. But such an app, responding to rape culture and queer bashing, would never invoke the term "sketchy" and its attendant cheapness and racism.
"The app is not built for us as young, white people. As far as we're concerned, racial profiling is 'sketchy' and we are trying to empower users to report incidents of racism against them and define their own experience of the streets," McGuire told Crains. And perhaps the intentions behind SketchFactor are noble. They didn't mean to be racist, but...
Yet if that's the case, then we must deem the app developers stupid. It is entirely irrelevant that McGuire and Herrington find racial profiling "sketchy," because that is almost never the context in which that term is applied. (And I might opt for a term like "violent" and "oppressive" for this sort of street experience before "sketchy" would come to mind.) The developers birthed an app to build a topography of "sketchiness" in cities. They did not build a companion app that removes the racist, classist connotations of calling a neighborhood "sketchy."
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
Image via Flickr