Mercy Quaye: Neighborhood app should encourage face-to-face talks
The neighborhood watch meetings are no longer at the house down the street. They’ve moved online and, just like everything else online, the tenor of discussion can be hostile with a twist of racialized fearmongering.
It’s clear that radical comments from the country’s highest office and a dramatic spike in racially motivated mass shootings have brought the nation’s hate-filled underbelly topside. That all has given some people license to follow suit and reveal their equally problematic racist ideas from the safety of apps like Nextdoor, Citizen and the community pages on Facebook.
I joined the app Nextdoor per the request of a letter in my mailbox with no return address. I was certain the invitation was delivered by the neighbor who saw me leave my dog poop on the tree belt but wasn’t there to witness me return to remove it with the bags I had forgotten at the house. Convinced I was being set up to be center of suburban discussion, I hesitantly downloaded the app for two reasons 1) to make sure I get invited to the next block party and 2) to start coalition-building before the zombie apocalypse.
After joining, finding my neighborhood thread, and scrolling through the recent posts I realized I had more emergent issues than the zombie apocalypse. In that, it seems my neighborhood may not be much different from those that become the center of attention when a young black kid has the cops called on him for any reason that suggests he doesn’t belong.
In the threads of conversation about the goings-on in the 12 city blocks that encase my own, folks expressed warranted concerns about an increase in car break-ins, a suspected home invasion, missing pets and all the other issues that make up neighborhood chatter. Then it was the propensity for the thread to devolve into rhetoric that would be less acceptable in person — at best. At worst, it became a hotbed for racial profiling.
It seems to me that the neighborhood networking app should be used to encourage more face-to-face interactions within communities and improve interpersonal relationships among people who share a Zip code. Instead, what I saw were demands to send 15-year-old kids to jail after stealing pocket change from cars and frequent suggestions to call the cops for petty disputes.
When you dip into the comment section on a new site, you often know what you’re getting into and although you might be sickened by the vitriol you find there, there’s typically a shield of anonymity that, for me anyway, offers some relief because you can go on believing that type of hate is far from home. Nextdoor reminds us that the person behind the keyboard could be a couple doors down from you.
We’re not our best selves when we’re afraid. When faced with the possibility of threat to our person or property, our fight or flight sensors are triggered and we resort to our base biases to help us quickly navigate fearful situations. That’s normal. But the problem is our American normal has always had racist undertones.
I can’t help but think of a how a legacy of cross-burning and redlining kept low-income families and families of color from integrating into communities with better-funded schools and more resources. Or how, a neighborhood watchman in Florida pursued and targeted a 15-year-old with his hoodie on because he didn’t look like he belonged. Chasing people out of our neighborhoods is kind of an American pastime.
Don’t get me wrong, being tuned into what’s going on in your community is probably the best way to lend and receive help from your neighbors when you need it the most. But, calling the cops on the ones who play music 17 minutes after New Haven’s quiet hours, instead of walking over to them, isn’t really a way to garner any kind of goodwill. And when it comes to alerting the community of crime, checking our biases on who’s most likely to be seen as a criminal is probably a good first step.
Fortunately, the makers of the neighborhood networking app have been working to correct-path, but while they tackle a fix, undergo diversity training and update functionality to report racial profiling, I feel like there’s probably a simpler solution — go meet your neighbors. They’re your first line of defense in the zombie apocalypse so some friend-making early on might be good.
Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Contact her at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com.