Won’t you be my white neighbor?

Madison’s Nextdoor users melt down when their white privilege is challenged.

Madison’s Nextdoor users melt down when their white privilege is challenged.

Illustration by Maggie Denman.

It’s no surprise that studies in recent years have found Wisconsin to be the most segregated state in the country. Madison, often praised by white liberals as a bastion of progressive culture within the 85 percent white swing-state that chose Trumpism in 2016, is no exception. Along with opposing the integration of low-income housing into more affluent neighborhoods, lamenting that segregation is necessary to keep property values high and prevent crime from rising, Madison residents are most comfortable confining the city’s African-Americans—7.3% of Madison’s population—to the north, southwest and south sides. According to the “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” conducted by MSA Professional Services Inc. and released in 2014, the Latinx community “is even more segregated” due to “stronger resistance from neighbors in other neighborhoods” to accept affordable housing units in higher-income areas. The 2019 edition of that study still paints a portrait of a segregated Madison. Following the nationally rising trend of hate groups in the wake of the state’s turn towards the far right over the past decade, racially motivated attacks had also grown 30 percent in Wisconsin by 2017. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our racial disparities into stark relief, not only afflicting non-white Wisconsinites in disproportionate numbers, but prompting white Wisconsinites to flaunt their privilege in dangerous ways.

On April 23, just a day before the city’s Capitol building would play host to one of the nation’s largest “reopen” protests, I witnessed one of my neighbors undermining Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order for slowing the spread of the novel Coronavirus. I was nearly trampled by an inconsiderate, unmasked jogger who cornered me near the intersection of Mineral Point Road and Owen Drive, despite the availability of at least three other possible trajectories, whereas I had but one and was accompanied by my dog. With a busy road to the right, my only option would have been to try and outrun this man. Instead of absurdly sprinting away backwards from the approaching jogger, I raised my hand in a friendly wave and pleaded for him to run in any other direction and to maintain at least six feet of distance. Instead, his face broke into a grin as he proceeded to laugh off my request and wave his hand dismissively, both ridiculing me and undermining CDC and WHO recommendations. 

Much like the bulk of anti-quarantine protesters gathered at the Capitol a day later, this man was white and heavily invested in what he viewed as his personal freedom to violate the space of others. 

I decided that the best course of action would be to let other neighbors know about this man’s reckless and rude behavior through Nextdoor, a massively popular neighborhood-level social network whose motto proclaims: “When neighbors start talking, good things happen.” At the time, my only knowledge of Nextdoor came from my mother, who, as a Balkan immigrant in her sixties, is proud to brag about her ability to navigate any kind of social media platform. She had shown me a number of racist posts on my own neighborhood’s Nextdoor where neighbors had complained about “suspicious” characters they had spotted, described exclusively as black or brown-skinned. These weren’t flukes, but part of a wellestablished pattern of racism and paranoia across the platform.

Naturally, when I went to post my comment regarding this particular jogger’s inconsiderate behavior, I was prompted to describe him. Within five minutes of reporting that he was a “white, middle-aged man,” I was attacked on multiple fronts by fellow Nextdoor users and reported for “violating user guidelines,” and denounced for hate speech and racism. Then I got suspended from the platform after re-posting my repeatedly censored comments. In addition to several elderly women who had previously posted similar complaints on the inability of those with reduced mobility to pivot away from oncoming joggers, several others voiced support of my complaint and relayed similar stories. 

The most prevalent charges against me from other Nextdoor-ers were that I was promoting “white hate” and “racism against whites”—quite ironic, considering that I am myself white-skinned. Without entering into the politics of how white men have historically been endowed to take up public space that does not belong to them (a reality to which the modern neologism “manspreading” poetically attests), I pointed my neighbors to James Baldwin’s idea that “Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality”—that to embrace whiteness is to embrace the existing power structures that exclude people of color and actively work to disempower them. 

In response, one of my detractors told me to “consider moving to West Town in Chicago…almost anywhere outside of Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska. You’re sure to find more diversity to suit you.” The message was clear: we do not want diversity, and this is a traditional white American neighborhood. 

In the wake of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery—killed in Brunswick, Georgia for jogging while black—the unabashed entitlement of this white jogger, as well as the protests around the Capitol, present a stark contrast and attest to the reality that black lives still do not matter to many Americans, and that white privilege reigns supreme. 

Nextdoor’s corporate leadership knows about the platform’s racism problem, and has been claiming for years that it will get fixed. I’ll believe them when we can have actual conversations about race and privileges in the coddled white Madison neighborhoods that need them most.

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