Ginger Williams saw something on Sunday that disturbed her: A white woman in a golf cart calling the police on a black father who had been yelling instructions at his son during a youth soccer game in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Not wanting the woman to be associated with soccer moms — Williams herself is one, she told The Washington Post — she nicknamed her “Golfcart Gail.”
As the story got picked up by national news networks, Golfcart Gail, a soccer field marshal whose real name has not yet been reported, joined the ranks of Permit Patty, BBQ Becky and Cornerstore Caroline — white women who called the police on black people over trivial or nonexistent offenses and were promptly shamed on social media. Their memorable nicknames easily lend themselves to hashtags, memes, headlines and ridicule. But whether the viral monikers are a productive way of calling attention to the experiences of black Americans is a matter of debate.
The trend started this spring. On April 29, a white woman named Jennifer Schulte called the police on two African American men who had been using a charcoal grill in an area of a park in Oakland, Calif., that wasn’t designated for charcoal grilling. After a local TV news station picked up the story, Schulte quickly became a hashtag and a viral meme: #BBQBecky.
The first person to use that nickname on social media appears to have been Sean Carter, an Arizona resident who frequently posts about social justice issues on Facebook and dubbed Schulte “Barbecue Becky” in a public post that was published on May 9 and shared 213 times. The Facebook page “Rise Up and Resist,” which has roughly a quarter of a million followers, used the hashtag #BBQBecky five days later.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Carter said he hadn’t realized he was the first to use that particular nickname.
“It’s hard to know who started it, but I’ll take credit for it,” he joked. “Go ahead.”
Carter’s reasoning for using the shorthand appellation was simple: At the time he wrote about the incident, Schulte’s name was still unknown. (Police released their 911 call log, which revealed Schulte’s name, nearly a month after the incident. She has not made any public statements since being identified.) He also wanted to give credit to a second white woman who had filmed the entire confrontation while trying to intervene, and exemplified what white people can do to help out in a similar situation, he said. In his Facebook post, the two women became “Barbecue Becky” and the “Caucasian Crusader.”
The choice to use “Becky” was deliberate. Ever since Beyoncé referenced “Becky with the good hair” on her 2016 album “Lemonade,” the name has been used as a way to describe any white woman who, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “is ignorant of both her privilege and her prejudice.”
“Becky is almost a pejorative shorthand for a white woman,” Carter said, noting that “Barbecue Bernice” wouldn’t have been quite as effective.
The alliterative formulation was soon replicated elsewhere in the Bay Area. On June 23, a white woman named Alison Ettel called San Francisco police about an 8-year-old black girl selling bottled water without a permit. The girl’s mother filmed Ettel placing the call and posted the video on Instagram, where it has been viewed almost 1.5 million times.
“First crazy #bbqbecky in Oakland now #permitpatty,” she wrote. On Twitter, the video was shared over 90,000 times.
Ettel, who initially claimed that she had only pretended to call the police, apologized and told the “Today” show that her actions weren’t racially motivated. But it was too late: “Permit Patty” had already become a meme.
As the summer went on, the list grew. The epithets all had a simple formula: A noun that sums up the location or source of the dispute, followed by a stereotypical white name — often one that peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. Though not all use alliteration, the ones that do, like “Pool Patrol Paula,” tend to get more traction compared to the ones that don’t, like “Apartment Patty.” Most refer to women, although there are a few exceptions, such as “ID Adam” and “Coupon Carl.”
Then, last week, Teresa Klein, a white woman, falsely claimed that a 9-year-old black boy had groped her while she was shopping in a Brooklyn deli. Surveillance footage later revealed that his backpack had brushed up against her. A bystander, Jason Littlejohn, filmed the woman picking up her phone and saying that she wanted the police as the boy began to cry.
“Meet Cornerstore Caroline,” Littlejohn wrote on Facebook, encouraging people to make the video go viral. As of Thursday night, it had been shared over 150,000 times. But it also marked the beginning of the backlash to the nicknames.
On Wednesday, the writer David Dennis Jr. summed up the objections in an essay for NewsOne titled, “Please Stop Giving Racist White Women Adorable Nicknames.”
“At first, the seemingly weekly moments and memes doubled as mindless comedy combined with ways to shame the white women for their racism,” he argued. “But it’s time to stop it. Because, in the end, these nicknames and memes are only shielding white women from real consequences they should get for putting Black lives in danger.”
It’s an argument that has Littlejohn in agreement.
“We should definitely use their real names,” he told The Post. “People should know who these people really are. But of course at that present moment you really don’t know that person, so you give them a nickname. It’s the Internet that runs with those nicknames and it just sticks.”
Carter, who came up with “BBQ Becky,” is torn.
“We kind of let them off the hook,” he said. “Using someone’s name is a powerful thing. We’re probably not giving these people their just due.”
But using catchy, alliterative nicknames helps to create a common reference point, Carter said. He added that the nicknames can drive conversation on Facebook and Twitter in a way that the individual’s name might not — especially if it’s hard to spell or pronounce.
“There is something to be said for not making it so cutesy, but I just don’t know any other way of making it go viral and making sure people get the story,” he said.
Williams, who coined “Golfcart Gail,” sees it a little differently. An epithet like “Permit Patty” can haunt you in a way that your real name can’t, she told The Post. It could also potentially serve as a cautionary tale to other white people, she suggested, and deter the kind of behavior that tends to go viral.
Plus, she pointed out, names like “BBQ Becky” tell a story.
“What do you think of when you think about your memories of a barbecue?” she said. “Hopefully it’s happy memories and being with your family. Now, that experience has been defiled. I feel like in some instances the key word in the names could elicit your own memories and emotions and enable more empathy.”
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