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.