The 2018 Name of the Year is BBQ Becky

Dec 22nd 2018


It all started with a spring picnic. In April, two African-American men fired up a grill for a cookout in an Oakland, California park. A white woman who was passing by objected to their grilling in that location, demanded that they leave, and ultimately called the police on their picnic. A video of the incident went viral, and on the internet the woman was dubbed "BBQ Becky."

The derisive nickname quickly became a template. Throughout the year, more white women who called the police on their black neighbors for seemingly trivial reasons were tagged with copycat labels like "Permit Patty" and "Golfcart Gail." The nicknames, and the way they were used, touched a range of pressure points in American society: prejudice and privilege, race and gender, civility and name-calling, social media and shaming. That makes BBQ Becky the 2018 Name of the Year.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Roots of a Name Phenomenon

The actual "BBQ Becky" was not named Becky. Social media commenters leapt in with that name because it was an established derisive term for a white woman in a black context. In prior usage, the name had typically signaled a generic young white woman with a blinkered worldview who was free with sexual favors. [Read more about the term "Becky."] While that precise image didn't fit the woman in the barbecue incident, it's the reason the nickname stuck so easily.

The fact that Becky is a diminutive—a pet form of a name, suggesting youth or smallness—made it especially potent as a put-down. While diminutives come across as affectionate in a friendly context, in unfriendly usage they sound inherently belittling. Combining the racial reference and the diminutive with the irresistible appeal of alliteration made the name BBQ Becky memorable, sharable, and above all, replicable.

As it turned out, opportunities to replicate the form came fast and furious. Back in the 1990s, the prevalence of racial profiling in traffic stops led to the phrase "Driving While Black," a play on actual offenses like "Driving While Intoxicated." In 2018, a rash of incidents between private citizens saw the phrase evolve into "Living While Black." Among the moments captured on viral video:

• A white woman called the police on an eight-year-old black girl for selling water, lemonade-stand style, without a permit
• A white woman threatened to call the police on a black teenager because he "didn't belong" swimming at a community pool
• A white woman called the police to report two black women who were waiting for a tow truck in front of their apartment building
• A white woman called the police on a nine-year-old black boy, falsely accusing him of groping her at a corner grocery store
• A white woman called the police about a black father who was shouting advice and encouragement to his son during a soccer game

Thanks to the model of BBQ Becky, these women were quickly dubbed Permit Patty, Pool Patrol Paula, South Park Susan, Cornerstore Caroline, and Golf Cart Gail.

The Impact of a Nickname

The coordinating nicknames highlighted the links among the incidents, making the cultural pattern clear. They also provided a shorthand form of reference which helped encourage the creation of mocking memes. All of this gave the core stories traction, raising awareness of the pervasiveness of everyday racism.

The use of belittling nicknames also subtly turned the tables on the power dynamics of racial tensions. Applying a diminutive to someone of another race, such as calling an African-American man "boy," has always been an instrument of subjugation. Conversely, real names have been instruments of power, as in the "say his name" chants for black victims of police violence. Tagging white instigators with mocking nicknames symbolically stripped them of their assumed privilege and power.

Yet the BBQ Becky names raised concerns as well. Reducing incidents of racial profiling to memes can numb us to their seriousness, rendering them merely ridiculous rather than frightening. What's more, referring to a confrontation by a nickname for the instigator frames the problem in terms of individuals, rather than something more systematic. "Pool Patrol Paula" sounds like just some annoying neighbor who is a little too picky about rules for free swim time, not a symptom of a hostile culture.

The uniform labels also reduce all the incidents to equivalence, masking the severity of individual events. Some of the instigators were belligerent and used hate speech, showcasing the increasing boldness of prejudice in 2018. And from the cute nickname, you would never guess that "Pool Patrol Paula" physically assaulted the boy at the pool.

More broadly, these viral stories of racial profiling are just one corner of a media culture in which public shaming and taunting put-downs are becoming ever more mainstream. We've seen the benefits of sharing cell phone videos as a crucial new tool of justice, illuminating events that would previously have remained in the shadows. But when a national news story can instantaneously erupt from a few seconds of video circulated by one side of a conflict, injustice can also be done. There is no way to recover the privacy and reputation lost by a viral video. We might also question the growing use of schoolyard-style insults by adults, even in serious settings. Taking down a target with public taunts rather than substantive criticism can amount to a "trial by nickname" which requires no due process.

Then there's the fact that all of the nicknamed instigators I listed were women. The year was equally packed with examples of white men confronting their black neighbors for questionable cause, but few of those men were tarred with similar nicknames. Once BBQ Becky was christened, the face of everyday racism was officially rendered female.

This gender disparity echoes another theme of the year, which saw outsized anger at white women (including voters and lawmakers) for behavior and choices that were at least as common, but less remarked on, among men. The outrage often appeared to reflect elevated expectations. Society expected women to be compassionate and nurturing, and to empathize with the experience of unequal treatment. Failing to meet these high targets made for a long and painful fall, with disproportionate outrage. Meanwhile, expectations for men to show compassion and civility seemed to be in decline. After the death of President George H. W. Bush in November, tributes lauded his decency and dignity as if they were superhuman achievements.

The BBQ Becky nicknames are complicated symbols, shining light on a disturbing pattern of antagonism in an antagonistic manner. They're also a reminder of the power that names and nicknames yield in public discourse. May we use them thoughtfully in the year to come.

 

Special thanks to BabyNameWizard.com readers jguliap, Holey and lucindajane for their nominations and thoughtful observations on BBQ Becky. And special apologies to all of the fine, blameless women actually named Becky.

 

Read More: 3 Names that Mattered in 2018

 

Comments

1
December 24, 2018 10:02 AM

As a Becky, I'm sad but resigned to my name's fate. Thanks, Laura, for the really trenchant analysis!

2
December 27, 2018 3:01 AM

I'm very glad you mentioned that the nicknamed people were all women. However, I'm not sure this is entirely due to higher expectations of women's compassion.  Frankly, I think it's also considered more socially acceptable to mock women.  They're easier, safer targets because they are less socially powerful.  Perhaps black men are more likely to be unfairly seen as a threat, while white women are more likely to be publicly demeaned and humiliated.

I've seen some of the other videos of people being racist and ridiculous - the cop targeting black kids at a pool party, the black schoolteacher who got lectured by police about the "violent tendencies" of black people, the man who yelled at the woman wearing the Puerto Rican flag T-shirt.  These all seemed very clearly, astoundingly racist to me.

I watched the whole BBQ Becky video, too, and I found it equally disturbing - but in a different way.  I was appalled by the behavior, not of "Becky," but of the woman recording her.  She was cruel, bullying and relentless, and seemed to be using her accusation of racism as a handy weapon.  (Notably, the black man actually doing the BBQing seemed extremely unconcerned about the whole situation - he clearly did not feel threatened).

I know I mentioned this in the nomination thread already, but I do think it's important to note that that community had recently been dealing with extremely costly trash pick-up caused by irresponsible barbecuers - and "Becky" appears to have had a career in environmental science.  Maybe she was being a busybody, but I truly don't believe her actions were racially motivated.

However, I would never have come to that conclusion had I not watched the video myself.  As you mentioned, the ability to make incidents go viral is both equalizing and terrifying.  Consumers of these videos and news stories are all too willing to accept interpretations that reinforce their existing beliefs (just as with the fake news making the rounds on social media).  How do we balance the social good this type of video can do with the need to protect individual privacy?  I find myself wishing that people who post these videos were required to blur the subjects' faces.

Altogether this is an excellent selection for Name of the Year.  An inspired suggestion by jguliap and, as always, an extremely convincing and thought-provoking case made by Laura.

3
December 27, 2018 11:56 AM

I agree with Holey that the racist in the BBQ Becky incident was the person behind the lens, not the people in front of it. The unfortunate busybody was motivated by some variety of civic pride or environmentalism, not race; she would've behaved exactly the same way if the cook was a white man.

4
December 27, 2018 2:54 PM

I too have mixed and conflicted feelings about all of these incidents and videos. The thing that universally stands out to me is a lack of empathy or ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes. Perhaps BBQ Becky was motivated by concern for the environment, but she failed to consider that calling the police to deal with a group of black people is an often dangerous action (and is sometimes deadly), not to mention an overreaction. The TV show “Black-ish” had an excellent episode about the risks of calling the cops on POC. 

Worst case scenario (with regard to giving the “Beckys” the benefit of the doubt) is that they were motivated by overt racism. Best case scenario is that they failed to see how their overreactions posed potential threats to others. And somewhere in between is the kind of subconscious racism and lack of awareness of privilege that these videos made me personally evaluate. That was what prompted my nomination.

Here’s to hoping that the 2019 Name Of The Year will be a unifying source of positive inspiration!

5
December 28, 2018 1:11 PM

Thank you, Laura, for this thorough and complex analysis of the power & pitfalls of these nicknames! I often think of the Harry Potter spell ‘ridikkulus’, which strips our fears of the power they have over us by making them funny, so that we may banish them with laughter; I love the idea, but do worry that for myself, the instinct to laugh can mean overlooking the danger. That said, POC  should be free to deal with their pains & fears in whatever way they deem best, without worrying about whether white people (the ones who are inclined to underestimate the attendant violence) will be misled by cutesy nicknames.

 

Looking back at the nominations thread, I want to note that TheOtherHungarian also contributed some important thoughts to the discussion.

 

And to jguliap: thanks for the reminder that calling the police on white barbecuers vs POC barbecuers is not equivalent - race blindness is not a virtue when it means failing to acknowledge the racist power structures that affect all of us.

6
December 29, 2018 1:04 PM

Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful post. Laura, I am always blown away by your analysis. (and really appreciate yours, jguliap!)

I am a longtime lurker and seldom poster, but I was surprised by the number of posts suggesting that those nicknamed might not be racist. I know this is an (often white liberal, though i don’t presume to know the demographics of this board) well-intentioned approach that can alienate and discount the lived expieriences of people of color.  I am sure that’s not the intention, just wanted to add my thoughts here as I feel the most for the victims “othered”  in these situations, as I’m sure we all do.

7
December 30, 2018 11:49 AM

This is always my favorite column of the year.  Laura, your choice and explanation are spot on.  The racial tension in the US is never far away, and in 2018 made the headlines.  In 2018, 'headlines' are often memes.  There are echos of the "Karen" post:  http://www.babynamewizard.com/archives/2017/7/that-name-sure-sounds-funny

8
January 1, 2019 3:45 AM

@aybee - I was referring only to BBQ Becky, not to the other incidents.  When I watched that video I was fully prepared to see an example of racism, not looking for reasons to excuse it.  But that's simply not what I saw.  While it's important to keep all views in mind, we also have to use our own judgment in each case.

10
March 6, 2019 11:42 AM

Thank you for sharing these great arguments

11
March 12, 2019 12:08 AM

Thanks for sharing variancetv

12
March 17, 2019 8:50 AM

BBQ Becky sounds like a name you give to a girl Rebecca born on Feb 29