Can we stop using the word “sketchy?”

I’m a writer and wholehearted believer in the First Amendment. I’m not one to suggest we dampen speech. But if I had to ban one word this week, it would be this one: “sketchy.”

Let me explain why. I recently moved into a new house in a new neighborhood. I’m still in Troy, where I’ve lived for the past year, but my new place is about a mile south of my old apartment in the downtown historic district. As such, my new neighborhood is quite simply called South Troy.

South Troy, like many parts of the city, suffers from all sorts of unfair and ignorant assumptions about urban areas: that it’s a dangerous, dirty, unsafe and undesirable place to live. The people who live here know otherwise. But for the visitors who wouldn’t dare wander past the idyllic scenes of the downtown farmers market, it’s a vast unknown. In other words, it’s “sketchy.”

Let me be clear: no one (yet) has described my new block specifically as such. Most people seem to think it’s quite nice. But when it comes to the 10 or so blocks between mine and the historic center, I’ve heard all sorts of euphemisms trotted out. “Dicey.” “Touch and go.” And of course, “sketchy.”

Here’s why that’s a problem. Words like “sketchy” are so imprecise and loaded that they do nothing but stigmatize. Sketchy makes all kinds of assumptions. Sketchy absolves us of taking the time to get beyond the surface – a surface that might not be pretty or immediately welcoming. A surface where weeds sprout from the cracked sidewalks, where some homes have fallen into disrepair, where street lights go dim.

Sketchy is one of those words that allows us to glance once at a poor neighborhood and decide it’s not worth our time. That it’s not a place worthy of walking through. That it must only be seen from a distance or from the inside of a car.

Sketchy ends the conversation, tacitly recognizes our discomfort and moves us right along to the next topic.

It’s so easy for those of us who have the privilege to live in affluent neighborhoods to write off the rest. Don’t get me wrong, I have been among that group. Sketchy has escaped my lips more than once. But I’m learning every day to go beyond the easy assumptions and find the humanity everywhere.

I find that sketchy is born mostly from fear of the unknown. It’s based less in reality – say, actual presence of crime in an area – and more in plain ignorance.

And if there is crime, poverty or danger, it does no good to camouflage it in euphemism. Using words that identify problems directly is the only way to start moving in the direction of fixing them.

In the two months I’ve spent here in South Troy, I’ve experienced so much that gives me hope. Families sit out on their stoops, play with their kids and chat with their neighbors. The church next door fills the air with buoyant music. An urban farmer two blocks away sells fresh veggies. A calming quiet falls over our streets every night. As I write this, a cool breeze floats by my toes while I sit out on my porch.

Is that sketchy?

I have yet to feel unsafe here. I have yet to feel threatened by the great diversity of my neighbors. I have yet to feel afraid of the poverty.

Perhaps I’m naive. Maybe crime will strike and snap me out of my idealistic delusion. Maybe sketchy is an apt description after all.

But I’m willing to bet most people would choose a different word if they spent the time to get to know my neighborhood like I do.

1 Comment

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Samuel Bakerreply
September 21, 2018 at 7:51 pm

Okay, now I have a much better understanding of where you are coming from. Growing up on the rural outskirts of a small town with a very bad reputation, I had taken it for granted that “sketchy” could be a convenient way of describing a place without really making an effort to get to know it. I mean, what did I know about New Castle when I spent all my time getting dirty in the creek bottoms of Slippery Rock? I agree with you that fear is what distorts our perception about the unknown, tending to portray the unknown as something negative and threatening. In the US we have been sorting ourselves and self-selecting our neighbors for decades and decades. I think that it’s a given that communities compare each other, look down on each other, judge each other, etc. because of the deliberate sorting we’ve done – whether because of conscious effort, implicit biases, media slant, or local policy. We want our communities to reflect our values and our shared visions. Social silos have been blanketing the American landscape long before social media became the divisive force that it has become. It’s refreshing that you’re bringing your neighborhood to life, Mike, and this certainly isn’t something that is limited to one city in upstate NY. Just think of all the places around our beautiful nation that are burdened with this stigma. I’m from the Rust Belt, and – on second thought – even that term is terrible. Like, who wants to be referred to as “rusty”? No one. And it fuels the ignorance around the narrative that glorifies “life as it used to be” in those places, further ignoring the great strides we’ve made and the bright future we can create together. Trump notoriously spoke of “American carnage” and “graveyards” when he described my home turf. What a ghastly image to conjure on the first day of office, and that was supposed to inspire hope in us? Just think of all the dwellers who are dehumanized merely at a passing glance or with a hurried step in the opposite direction. You may not convince everyone, but you’ve certainly convinced me that I should take more care when it comes to using this word. It’s not something to be thrown about wantonly or lightly! I always appreciate the care you take with words, Mike – well done! I would expect nothing less from such a gifted writer, a thoughtful human, and a brilliant friend!

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