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Op-Ed: I’m the Black person Nextdoor, trying to sort the site’s value from its ugliness

Black Lives Matter protesters stand in the middle of Ocean Avenue at Colorado in Santa Monica on June 1.
Black Lives Matter protesters occupy Ocean Avenue at Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica on June 1.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

When the Black Lives Matter protests in Santa Monica were followed by lawbreaking, my local Nextdoor app exploded with racially charged epithets. A Black woman on the site was disturbed enough to create her own post to educate others about the racial undertones of the words. She was met mostly with defiant exasperation: “Thugs come in all colors.” And “people” don’t know what words to use when “everything is racist.”

As another apparently rare Black Santa Monica resident on the site, I seconded her point about the effect of the troubling terms, and others hopped in as well. One poster explained, “ ‘Animal’ is racist because of its historical use to dehumanize black criminals,” while another ally pleaded with the dissenters to “just listen” and stop using language that Black and brown people say makes them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the thread couldn’t seem to come to a consensus that these labels were problematic.

A worrisome merger also took hold on Nextdoor: Protesters and lawbreakers were one and the same. As if the people marching peacefully on Ocean Avenue had dropped their “I can’t breathe” signs and headed off to ransack the Third Street Promenade and small businesses on 4th Street. “No more protests here please,” one entry read. Others posted protest notifications as “warnings” to the community.

I love where I live, but there is a certain paranoia that comes with being a Black woman, with a Black husband and two Black children in a town where just over 4% of the residents identify as African American. Nextdoor — unlike Facebook or Twitter, where bigotry is also known to run amok — verifies that its users are members of each of its communities, so the effects of conversations on the platform have particular potential to spill over into real life. I wonder if the racial animosity on the site reflects a serious problem in my community. Are we where we belong if so many people on Nextdoor can’t be bothered to simply type “Black Lives Matter,” period, without making it an afterthought with “Black Lives Matter Too” or mucking it up with the obvious “All Lives Matter”?

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Nextdoor has been a valuable resource for my family. I found a nanny share for my kids on Nextdoor. When I posted looking for a mechanic to replace my car headlight, a neighbor offered to change it free of charge. When the pandemic struck and disinfectant wipes were impossible to come by, a woman on Nextdoor DM’d me offering to leave some on her porch.

Yet I’ve long seen remnants of racism across the site that have left me with a bad feeling not only about the app, but the city I love. A few years back I felt compelled to reply to a post when a neighbor reported, “Lock your doors, windows, cars and garages!! There are 2-3 African American homeless people gathered around our mailboxes.” Based on the responses, not very many of my neighbors recognized the implicit bias, the racism in such heedless assumptions.

That’s the thing about racism, it can at the same time be too vague to challenge and not invisible enough to ignore. It can be as covert as it is piercingly obvious. It can contain othering, gaslighting and terms that have not yet been added to the standard American lexicon. Oftentimes I find myself tuning out racial slights in order to avoid James Baldwin’s truism — that being conscious and Black is to “be in a rage almost all of the time.”

In recent days, when I take my kids for walks around the neighborhood I see “Black Lives Matter” and other messages of support tattooed with colorful chalk on the sidewalks. I think, “This is progress.” Back home, I go on Nextdoor and read another “All Lives Matter” post and realize that we’re taking one step forward and two steps back. How long will Santa Monica continue to be the place for us?

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So many complaints about racism on Nextdoor bubbled up recently that the company’s CEO, Sarah Friar, stepped in. “Racism has no place on NextDoor,” she blogged. “Many Black neighbors … do not feel welcome and respected.” She admitted that the company must do better. I am encouraged; Nextdoor, valued at approximately $2 billion, has substantial resources to address this urgent challenge.

For now, I’m logging on to Nextdoor a lot less. Staying on just long enough to catch some of the good, and not go down a rabbit hole of the ugly. I may be living in denial, but I’m doing my best to stay positive. I’m trying to trust what I see in front of me, the neighbors who smile at me from behind their masks when my family is out for a walk, the people who play peekaboo with my 1-year-old in the grocery line, and the colorful chalk inscription of Black Lives Matter fading on the sidewalk.

Ralinda Harvey Smith is a writer in Santa Monica. @ralinda


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