It all started with BBQ Becky. Before she was re-birthed, dripping in the amniotic fluid of internet shorthand, her name was Jennifer Schulte and she was a middle-aged white woman who called the police to report that a black family was using a charcoal grill in a park where open fires were not allowed. Schulte dialed 911 several times over the course of a few hours not because she was in any danger but because the family was doing something that she didn’t like — open fires turned out to be permitted, as though that matters. She wielded her whiteness like a buzzsaw.
Once Twitter got wind of the events, Schulte was given a nom de guerre, one of a number of dismissive sobriquets for entitled white women who patrol people of color. BBQ Becky was followed by such figures as Permit Patty and Central Park Karen, each a riff on the theme of racist quasi-distress — the discomfort of the privileged mistaken for an emergency. While the name Karen has come to describe a particular type of middle-aged white woman who demands to speak to the manager, she falls into this taxonomy as well. While less discussed, these women have male counterparts. Karen has a husband. His name is Ken.
“It’s a snapshot of a conversation happening,” Dr. Apryl Williams, an assistant professor at University of Michigan and Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard who broadly studies race on the internet, says of the Karening of Twitter. “The thing that I love about it as a tool is that the memes highlight the everyday power of whiteness.”
To date, the memes have mostly highlighted the everyday power of whiteness for women. Williams may be the only scholar with a cohesive theory as to why this is the case and why the Internet (and Black Twitter in particular) seem to let Kens off the hook. Her theory, based on an analysis of nearly 100,000 tweets, suggests that racist narratives are deeply internalized and woven into the fabric of American culture.
Fatherly spoke to Williams about her research, how to make sense of memes as an act of resistance, and what it means to be a Ken.
What would you say to people who are dismissive of internet memes as meaningful indicators of culture or cultural direction? What’s your response to ‘Oh, these are just memes’?
The internet is a mirror for our society. It’s not separate. The things that happen on it are just an extension of our everyday lives. Memes are a reflection of that socialization process and also people pushing back against this racism. So, to say, “Oh, they’re just memes,” really discounts the perspective of an entire group of people. And not just black people, but people of color and also white people who believe in and support this idea that casual racism upholds white supremacy. So while they are memes and they are funny, the word meme comes from “memetic.” It’s a shorthand for a lot of layers of culture. A meme is highly representative of the entire state of American culture at any given point in time. It’s a snapshot of a conversation happening.
Names like ‘BBQ Becky,’ ‘Permit Patty,’ and ‘Karen’ fall into the realm of cultural signifiers — a shorthand of sorts that has always existed. The internet simply makes them more apparent.
We’ve always had signifiers. Especially in the black communities, we’ve relied on signifying, which is an amalgamation of different shortcuts and ethnically coded patterns of speaking that encode a lot. That part isn’t new. The only thing that is new is that we’re doing it online and that digital spaces keep a constant record of that.
The record of the things I process really helps us think through and catalog these conversations we’re having. It makes it a little bit easier to connect the dots. That’s the really interesting thing. We can have the hashtag BBQ Becky or Permit Patty in March or May of 2018 and then, when we see these incidents with Central Park Karen, connect those dots and say this is a related phenomenon. Twitter keeps a record of all of that for us.
And you track these things. That must be one hell of a spreadsheet.
Oh, it is.
If you could talk a bit more broadly about the memes themselves. What similarities bond the ‘Karens’, ‘Beckys’, and ‘Pattys’ of the world together?
These white women see things that are not going the way that they want, and they feel that they can call the police. It’s evidentiary of their white privilege. Women of color are not calling the police for the same types of things or with the same frequency.
To be able to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, someone is doing something that I don’t like” — not even, like, “Hey, someone is doing something that makes me feel unsafe” — is a privilege. Women of color and people of color don’t have that same privilege. And that really is the same centerpiece that connects all of these. Women, and in some cases men, rely on that white privilege and they do it so naturally that calling the police really becomes an extension of upholding the everyday standard of whiteness.
You recently were interviewed for On the Media’s ‘Boiling Point’ and described memes as an ‘an act of resistance against a casual white supremacy,’ and suggested that without them the discourse wouldn’t be nearly as strong.
Yes. So, if we think about the U.S. as a whole, or if we think about society, the way that sociologists typically frame society is as a system or a connection of networks. It’s guided and determined by this underlying explicit thread of norms and values that we all agree on, but don’t really say out loud. There are certain times we might say them, but we don’t explicitly say, for instance, “Oh, when you go into an elevator, and you face backwards, you’re breaking a norm.” We just implicitly follow the rules.
Well, there are other implicit rules about race. Those rules are that, as long as the status quo or the majority is happy or complacent, then things are “normative.” And, so, when anyone does anything that steps out of what is perceived by white people as normative, then they’re breaking the social contract. This is not necessarily the case, but is often the perception. The idea that the white majority has to always be comfortable is a white supremacist idea because it really implies that white comfort is a superior need for society than anything else.
While there are a lot of memes out there about white women, there are only a handful about white men. Why aren’t white guys getting roasted on Twitter?
Part of it is historical, in that white women, because of their position in society, have always been relegated to the home — the homemaker, the nurturer. And they have also been positioned as needing protection by men and society. So, if we’re thinking about systems and who’s afforded the most power, white men are at the top of that system and white women are directly beneath them. If we’re thinking about it from an intersectional perspective, white women have more power than people of color, but less power than white men.
There’s this framing of white women as needing protection. Historically it’s a trope that we see, especially if we think back to the 1934 film Birth of a Nation, where the white woman is being raped by a white man in black face. That depiction of the rape of a white woman by a black man is a fear that is connected to the days of slavery. The narrative was perpetuated that white women are vulnerable to black men in particular, that black men were animalistic rapists, that they were oversexed, and if white women weren’t protected then black men would just brutalize them.
That’s where the idea of it comes from. And if we bring that forward, if we start from the days of slavery and then move to the days of Emmett Till, we can see that same type of fear happening in the days of segregation. And then now, here in these instances in the U.S., white women in particular still have that implicit fear of black men.
Why do you think we don’t see as many instances of ‘Kens’ being referenced on Twitter?
Ultimately, the reason why we don’t see so many of these incidents where white men are calling the police on black people is due to the gender socialization process where women are conditioned to call out and seek help and men are not. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, instead of calling the police, these white men decided to take justice into their own hands.
Instead of calling the police to inflict harm, white men simply inflict the harm themselves. They are at the top of that power structure and they feel they have the right to enforce white supremacy, or just their power, over others.
And if ‘Kens’ aren’t acting out, they’re likely not telling ‘Karen’ to calm down. Complacency seems to be a defining quality as well.
Complacency is huge. I’ve said before that complacency is my number one frustration with white men in America right now. His silence enables her behavior.
I think complacency comes from being comfortable with the way things are, which is sort of an innate human desire to maintain the status quo. Humans are afraid of change. But there are also people who are deliberately complacent. They don’t want to see the problem; they want to hang on to their status position in society. And so, for me, that’s the critical difference — when people are complacent because they’re comfortable versus when they are complacent because they believe in a white supremacist standard and actively want to uphold that standard.
There are certainly no easy answers for this, but what’s the opposite of a ‘BBQ Becky’ or a ‘Ken’?
I would say this: Don’t call the police on black people for doing things that are not illegal.
I would also say that someone who is not a Karen or a Ken takes it upon themselves to learn about the history of police and where policing comes from. Progress definitely starts with people educating themselves, doing some serious introspection, and really thinking deliberately and intentionally about the ways they are upholding white supremacy in their everyday life.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.