The first incident that made national headlines occurred right here in Oakland, directly across Lake Merritt from where I live. On April 29, a white woman later identified as Jennifer Schulte made a 911 call to report that two African American men were barbecuing in an area not designated for charcoal grills. A woman named Michelle Snider filmed the call on her own phone; the video, posted to YouTube, has attracted more than three million views. Also viral: the “BBQ Becky” meme.*
“BBQ Becky” on her phone, via BBC.
In the months since then, similar incidents have occurred with disturbing regularity, each with its own nickname for the white caller: Permit Patty, ID Adam, Pool Patrol Paula, Brooklyn Becky. Aamna Mohdin wrote in Quartz on July 3:
These incidents follow a familiar pattern. A black American is doing something innocuous—such as mowing the grass, sitting in a Starbucks, or napping in a college lounge—and someone, usually a white person, decides to call the cops. Many of these incidents have been caught on video, which has put the day-to-day reality of racial discrimination in the US in the spotlight.
Most recently, an employee of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, called campus police to report a person who “seemed to be out of place” in a dorm common room on July 31. The person, Oumou Kanoute, is a Smith student and summer teaching assistant who was eating and reading on her break.
In a May 15 article for The Root, Michael Harriot used white-caller crime to describe the white people’s behavior. He credited the coinage to Twitter user @statsJan, but I haven’t been able to find a source tweet. Whoever originated it, the pun is so apt that it’s become a popular hashtag.
“White caller” is a play on “white collar,” a metaphor for a person employed in non-manual work. The OED antedates the usage to 1910, when collars were made of celluloid and detachable; the American writer (and Socialist candidate for Congress from California) used it in The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism, published in 1919.
Flow chart via @RalphGarcia305, although it may have originated elsewhere.
“White-collar criminal,” another Americanism, has been antedated to a 1928 article in the Ironwood (Michigan) Daily Globe, where it appeared between quotation marks, suggesting that it was a relatively recent coinage. The FBI’s website asserts the “white-collar crime” (as distinct from “white-collar criminal”) was coined in 1939; the OED defines it as “a non-violent, financial crime, committed by a white-collar worker, typically involving the abuse of his or her professional status or expertise.”
I’m going to make an early prediction that white-caller crime will be in contention for the 2018 word of the year. (No, it doesn’t have to be a single word. Last year’s winner at the American Dialect Society meeting was fake news.)
UPDATE: Thanks to Mike Pope for alerting me to this relevant video. (Note: strong and appropriate language!)
* “Becky” is worth a post of its own, but for now, it’s sufficient to know that the nickname predates the Lake Merritt incident; it has been shorthand for several years for “a generic woman, generally white.” (Urban Dictionary’s top definition is “a stereotypical, basic white girl, obsessed with Starbucks, Uggs boots, and trying to have a bigger butt.”) Sometimes “…who is familiar with certain sexual acts” is added to the definition, but probably not in the Lake Merritt case.