I keep thinking about this thing that happened a few weeks ago. I was on the Metro and some kids were being loud. Nothing abnormal for a bunch of 15-year-olds, but as we pulled into a stop, transit police were waiting on the platform, seemingly having been called to the scene.
One of the kids, who was black, and who had been irritatedly telling his friends to cut it out, saw the cops and quietly slid into the seat next to me. I’m a professional-looking white lady in my 30s. “Can I just sit with you?” he asked. He sensed it would be safer for him if it looked like we were together, and I sensed it, too.
I keep thinking about that, because I’m also thinking about #GolfcartGail.
In case you missed it, last week a white woman at a Florida youth soccer game saw a black father yelling to his son from the sidelines and decided this warranted a call to the police. As a witness later described it, the woman had accused the dad of harassment. The dad tried to explain that he’d been instructing his son to listen to the referee. The cops arrived anyway. Video from the encounter went viral, and before anyone could learn the white woman’s real name, her likeness had acquired its own hashtag: #GolfcartGail.
Golf cart, because she’d been driving one when she phoned the cops. Gail, because it sounded like precisely the kind of name that a middle-aged white lady in capri pants and sneakers would have. And the hashtag? Because it’s how we’ve come to identify the women who, as a writer for the Root put it, treat 911 as “the technical support number for whiteness.”
A few days before #GolfcartGail, there was #CondoCathy — also known as #ApartmentPatty — who called police on a black neighbor as he tried to enter his own building. Just before that was #CornerstoreCaroline, who called the cops on a 9-year-old who, she falsely claimed, had grabbed her butt in a market (security-camera video revealed his backpack had simply brushed against her). #PermitPatty’s target was an 8-year-old selling bottled water, #NewportNancy’s was a woman smoking a cigarette in a parking garage. The list goes all the way back to a California woman who, last spring, phoned police on two black men grilling in the dedicated grill zone of a public park. She became #BarbecueBecky — Becky being the withering shorthand for clueless white women everywhere.
The message: Don’t be a Barbecue Becky. When these videos go viral, they are accompanied by eyeroll emoji, and if you click on one you know you’re about to see a digestible morality play: a crazed white lady, a baffled person of color (occasionally frustrated, often with the patience of a saint), and sometimes an eventual comeuppance when, say, the harassed man unlocks his apartment to show that yes, Cathy, he lives here.
Dopey Cathy. Wah-wahhhhh.
Some days, I feel like grabbing some popcorn and watching these videos all day, wallowing in the satisfying ritual of a good public shaming. And yet, something about the viewing experience — or at least the hashtag packaging of it — was starting to bother me. So I called a few people to talk through why.
“It’s a really gendered response,” offers Charles McKinney, a professor of history and Africana studies at Rhodes College. “When white men engage in this activity, very rarely do we give them cutesy nicknames,” he notes, with exception to the rare #CouponCarl. “There’s an insipid inclination to downplay these instances when the perpetrators are white women.”
McKinney’s argument is that these incidents aren’t, generally, women simply being dopey or clueless. They’re examples of racism, and the way that people of color can be harassed while going about their daily lives.
Presenting these 911 callers with jaunty nicknames can be a way to deal with that via dark humor. And that was the origin of many of these hashtags — black Twitter users potently jabbing at a terrible reality.
But as the nicknames spread into broader Twitter population, by people who simply wanted something to mock, the side effect was dilution. A minimizing of the profound power that white women have had in America’s racial history — from the false accusation by Carolyn Bryant Donham that led to Emmett Till’s brutal killing, to the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five, which resulted in innocent boys spending years in prison.
In the post-Civil War South, white women were “segregation’s constant gardeners,” as Elizabeth McRae writes in a new book about the politics of white supremacy. White women built the monuments to Confederate generals; white women harassed black children as they tried to integrate schools. Racist white men burned crosses and performed lynchings, but their rationale was often tied up in a twisted logic related to protecting the purity of white women.
So why are we hashtagging the 911-calling ladies of 2018? “The impulse is to make them into a ridiculous story,” says Vann Newkirk, a staff writer at the Atlantic who writes about politics, and often race. “But that’s the wrong impulse. The right impulse is, these are deeply disturbing stories. There are ridiculous parts to them, but always one step away from something horrifying.”
The reason we can roll our eyes at #GolfcartGail is because the story ends with a wah-wahhhh. But plenty of other stories — Tamir Rice, John Crawford — have started out exactly the same way, with a bystander dialing 911, and they have ended in terror. Not with a wah-wahhhh but with a bang-bang.
“None of these women called the police by accident,” says author and TV host Touré. “They’ve all taken effective action. Some of them are put on hold. Some of them call multiple times.”
They are, Touré says, essentially rolling the dice with the lives of people who are just trying to barbecue, or have a smoke, or cheer on a kid at a soccer game.
I keep thinking about that kid on the train because I keep thinking about what a chance he took on me. In a split second, he had to recognize that I am not the kind of person the police would bother. And he had to roll the dice that I would not bother him, that I wouldn’t be #MetroMonica, tattling on him to the police.
If that had happened, it might have gone viral, and I might have looked like a dopey idiot. But it wouldn’t have actually been a digestible morality play. And it shouldn’t be consumed with popcorn. It would have been the story of America, and it would have been so deeply sad.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.