In Browsing Black History, we celebrate Black History Month by exploring the origins of internet trends and icons popularized by Black cultural producers, too often left uncredited for their work.
It all started in April 2018 with Jennifer Schulte. On a sunny spring day, she saw two Black men barbecuing in Lake Merritt Park, a designated wildlife refuge in Oakland, a city that is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. She claimed it was illegal for Kenzie Smith and the other man to use a charcoal grill in the park, so she called the police. Smith’s wife, Michelle Snider, arrived on the scene soon after and confronted Schulte on video. There was no arrest or violent confrontation with the authorities but Snider did upload the video to Youtube, it became viral, and #BBQBecky was born.
Sean Carter, a former attorney and stand-up comedian, was one of the first people who used the term for Schulte, stemming from a Facebook post. Carter, who often posts about social justice, used the term “Barbecue Becky” to describe Schulte in a scathing rebuke of the incident. In an excerpt from the post, Carter writes:
In today's racist episode, we have a white woman who confronts a black man for...wait for it... barbecuing in a public park. #bbqingwhileblack The brutha does what all black men must do in this situation and simply takes the white woman's verbal abuse. A sista comes upon the scene and tries to talk to sense into Barbecue Becky, but she isn't listening to a black woman either.
The term “Barbecue Becky” was an amalgamation of the setting the incident took place at and “Becky,” a term that has long been used in African American vernacular as a euphemism for a white woman.
Barbecue Becky was shortened to #BBQBecky on Twitter, eventually became a meme, and was even spoofed by Saturday Night Live. But that was just the beginning of viral-friendly nicknames for white people calling the police on Black people for unlawful or non-threatening situations.
Adam Bloom known as #PoolsidePete, called the police on a Black neighbor while she was using the pool with her son in their shared apartment complex; Alison Ettel known as #PermitPatty, called the police on an 8-year-old Black girl for selling water without a permit outside of their apartment complex; and Teresa Klein known as #CornerstoreCaroline, falsely accused a 9-year-old Black boy of fondling her in a New York City bodega.
While the names are catchy, some critics believe the terms for white people weaponizing 911 calls against Black people in blatantly innocuous situations is a form of dealing with trauma. America's history is filled with violent incidents between Black Americans and law enforcement that are an ever-present source of contention in communities of color. Processing pain through comedy is a technique Black people have used for centuries to numb psychological trauma caused by systematic racism.
“Humor is probably the thing that has saved us as a people,” Carter tells Broadly. “When catching hell, you can either catch it in the face or in the gut. We’ve learned to do the latter and turn it into a belly laugh.”
Carter cites a 1974 Richard Pryor stand up entitled, Ni---rs Vs. Police, where Pryor explains how Black people go into survival mode when pulled over by police. Pryor’s commentary, while presented comically, is eerily close to actual situations that have begun with a seemingly simple police stop and ended with Black people being killed, yet Pryor’s audience laughed at what in any other situation would be an uncomfortable conversation.
“If you are going to communicate suffering to others, you almost have to use humor,” Carter contends. “It’s been said that there are only three ways to communicate the truth — anonymously, humorously, or posthumously. And I think that’s absolutely correct. During the 60s and 70s, the Black Panthers were speaking about police brutality and were viciously persecuted for their efforts. At the same time, Richard Pryor became a household name for exposing the very same problem. The difference is that Pryor ‘disarmed’ his would-be tormentors with laughter.”
Charity Clay, Ph.D, an assistant professor of sociology at Xavier University, warns to not let the humor fool you. Clay asserts that getting caught up in the comedic aspect can over-simplify the nuanced ways in which racial oppression can be destructive to Black communities.
“When a hashtag of white violence goes viral, it can be damaging because then Black people are inundated with videos replaying on their social media accounts,” Clay says. “Research has shown that repeated viewing of Black pain is detrimental to the psyche and even has negative health outcomes for Black people. I don’t think the humor associated is a tradeoff.”
According to FBI data obtained by Vox, Black people are killed at a disproportionately high number compared to any other race of people in this country. As of 2012, Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims even though they make up 13 percent of the US population.
Carter believes the hashtags, while are easily transferable in social dialogue exchange, have a double-edged sword.
“They make it easier to spread the word. #JenniferSchulte could never go viral,” he says. “Half of the folks would misspell her name and the next thing you know, we’d all be arguing about whether Charles M. Schulz should have made Franklin more ‘woke’ in the Peanuts comic strip. So the upside is the ease of use.”
Adding, “The downside is that they trivialize a very serious problem. This is always the challenge with humor. People will be more receptive to your message if it is delivered humorously or playfully, but it doesn’t mean that they will actually act to alleviate the problem.”
Language and delivery are powerful tools, especially in an era where words are misconstrued and remixed to fit specific agendas. Look at the 2016 election, for example. In the age of short attention spans, headline scanning, and (mis)information from memes, comedy could be the vessel to translate to real life action.
Shortly after the #BarbecuingWhileBlack incident, several Black Oakland residents gathered at the same park for an epic clap-back barbecue, where joy trumped pain amid the Electric Slide as an act of resistance.
In Smith’s case, he actually ran for city council, telling The East Bay Express, “I’m not going to let someone else have a ‘BBQ Becky.’” Smith lost the race, but his mission was clear: “To bring our community together and unite. Together we can make a difference.”