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