"Not-Racist" White People Made a Very Racist App


The news: Meet "SketchFactor," the app designed to help users avoid "sketchy" neighborhoods.

By aggregating anonymously crowdsourced reports of "sketchiness" in an area, the app aims to take "the guesswork out of city navigation" by generating maps that show the shortest route to bypass bad neighborhoods entirely.

You can probably see where this is going. "SketchFactor" offers genteel smartphone users a convenient way to quell their anxieties about unintentionally entering what others report are bad neighborhoods — which could potentially mean, well, the poor minority ones. The app's creators, a smiling white duo, insist users likely won't focus on race, and that they will delete all discriminatory posts.

But the Internet knows better.

The reaction: CityLab's Kriston Capps has already slammed "SketchFactor" as, at best, a way to "help the privileged avoid the poor." And at worst, it's a way of "leaving it to users to fill in the blank later with whatever associations 'sketchy' brings to mind." Valleywag's Sam Biddle is more blunt: "Young white people use ['sketchy'] to describe places where they don't feel safe because they watched all five seasons of The Wire."

And creators Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington are not helping.

"And even though Dan and I are admittedly both young, white people, the app is not built for us as young, white people," they told Crain's New York. "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."

That people of color can use "SketchFactor" to tell them where racism lurks is completely naive. Moreover, the app's website contradicts all efforts to depict it as a tool for social justice:

If the creators were actually concerned about racism, why didn't they create an app to report racism? If they were concerned about safety, why not have the app pull publicly available crime statistics? 

"SketchFactor" is more evidence that pretending not to see race can still yield some pretty unsavory results. The deliberate vagueness of "sketchiness" is a perfect way to facilitate discriminatory attitudes under the cover of safety concerns. Capps puts it best: "Racial profiling is the weaponizing of 'sketchy,' and it results in the persecution of minorities."

"SketchFactor" might be subtler than an "avoid ghetto" button, but it has the same effect.