News & Analysis

No, ValleyWag, this startup is not racist

- August 12, 2014 3 MIN READ

As a person of colour who has encountered racism in many circumstances, ValleyWag’s headline ‘Smiling Young White People Make App for Avoiding Black Neighborhoods‘ certainly caught my attention. The article insinuates that co-founders, Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, who appear to be white, developed their app SketchFactor to help fellow Anglo-Americans stay away from suburbs that have a high population of black people.

“Is there any way to keep white people from using computers, before this whole planet is ruined? I ask because the two enterprising white entrepreneurs above just made yet another app for avoiding non-white areas of your town—and it’s really taking off!” writes Sam Biddle of ValleyWag.

I’d say Biddle is simply trolling the internet. Nevertheless, if you’re a serious person, you’ll realise very quickly that the only person being racist is the writer himself. I admit I found the composition of his article hilarious. Nothing like some bigotry to shine light on bigotry.

At first glance, I’d say SketchFactor offers what the world needs – an app that informs us of what suburbs to avoid prior to moving in. There’s only so much you will find out by driving through a suburb during the day. And it’s not like you can comfortably knock on someone’s door and ask them whether their street is safe. You can ask Yahoo! but the responses are likely to be too diverse to be helpful. Who uses Yahoo! anyway?

I love the idea behind SketchFactor because I live in a Sydney-based suburb, where the sound of gunshots isn’t all that rare. At least twice a week, I hear husbands and wives screaming at each other, followed by sounds of glass shattering. Obviously, someone’s thrown a vase at someone else’s head, or at least that’s what it sounds like. I’ve had my handbag snatched a few times and I’ve been followed by creepy folks. I never walk home from the station anymore and I now wear a cross-body bag that can’t be stolen as easily.

The truth is the police only occasionally show up when people make complaints. Today Tonight revealed in an expose not too long ago, that Australian police deliberately avoid certain suburbs – most likely to protect themselves. Given how busy they can be, it would be easy to get away with certain complaints being ‘less of a priority’. You can’t blame them. Police officers don’t want to get killed either.

The point is, an app like US-based SketchFactor would certainly come in handy. No where does it state that ‘sketchy’ neighbourhoods means Black or Latino neighbourhoods. Sketchy neighbourhoods could just as easily mean neighbourhoods that have high crime rates or unpleasant people whatever their racial background may be. If there happens to be a statistical correlation between race and crime rates, then hate the statistic.

SketchFactor co-founders McGuire and Herrington have told Crain’s New York Business that they would consider neighbourhoods that have high rates of race-based hate crimes or a generally racist culture ‘sketchy’.

The ValleyWag article, it seems, has incited a ‘Black vs White’ argument. One commenter  said, “Whatever Sam, I would use this app. As a black man, I need to know what neighborhoods to avoid so I don’t get shot because I was knocking on the door. This will also save everyone of all races to avoid places where white dudes riot because some sports team won/lost. White people are dangerous Sam, stop avoiding the truth.”

Another commenter wrote, “OK since were are just going to assume this app was built as part of the ongoing war against the black community lets go. I would have thought that you people would be down with this since you always complain that white people moving in raises the prices of everything.”

Great. So everyone’s being snarky and racist to a certain extent, which furthers the problem. What we need is cohesion. When everything turns into a debate about race, we become less of a community. It also undermines a very real problem. Racism, at its worst, is when people are denied opportunities because of their racial background or are harmed physically and emotionally for this reason.

I’ve experienced both. At a previous job, a co-worker said that I don’t represent the brand well because I’m a ‘black journalist’. I was also told that ‘black journalists’ shouldn’t be business journalists. I addressed the comment, and was for unclear reasons, made redundant. At another job, I was asked to do manual labour. It became difficult due to my limited strength. When I said it’s too hard for me to carry 20 kilograms worth of equipment from one suburb to another, the boss said something along the lines of, ‘Oh come on, your ancestors were slaves. You should be able to do this easy.’

I no longer hold resentment towards my co-workers at these previous workplaces, because it led to better career opportunities. But these are the kind of issues people still face today when it comes to racism.

You can’t go overshadowing the real problem by calling an app racist. It’s a bit silly.

That said, SketchFactor may attract racist people who say racist things. But that’s something else.


Image: SketchFactor co-founders Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington. Source: SketchFactor.