It’s funny how a word becomes embedded in our cultural lexicon and seeps into our daily conversations. More than simply slang like the above examples, some words are marked, laden with racial connotations. For many black women, that word is “Becky.” I can’t remember when I first heard the moniker or the context in which it was used, but I knew right away who was being described — a clueless white chick who considers her (one) black girlfriend the go-to guide for all things African-Americana. I like to say Becky is the contemporary daughter of Miss Ann. Instead of being fanned on the front porch of her plantation, she’s hanging at the water cooler or the cosmetics counter, demanding that black women school her on their hair, their bodies, their speech and their culture.
More and more sisters that I meet have an unvoiced resentment toward the women they believe are trampling their dignity and humanity with steel-toe stilettos. I live in L.A., which is a hotbed of Becky activity, and I have the wounds to prove it. Often, I feel like a fatigued soldier, as proud of her Purple Heart as she is bogged down by it. But to paraphrase bell hooks, healing occurs when we speak the truth of our lives.
Recently, I asked several black girlfriends to share some annoying Becky-isms they personally experienced. At first, it was just a funny exercise to see who could name the most outrageous offenses. But the tone of our virtual round robin soon grew somber. My friends recounted painful instances in which they felt not just mildly irritated but marginalized and othered. One girlfriend recalled being at the spa, slathering on her SPF 50, when the white woman next to her said, “Black women need sunscreen? I thought you guys had a natural barrier to the UV rays.” Another sisterfriend remembered a doctor’s visit in which she mentioned a bruise on her arm. The doctor’s wife, who was nearby, looked at her and said, “Black people bruise? How do you know?” I shared my own brush with Becky — one out of many. While discussing a bill with a customer service rep a few months ago, she inquired about my employer. When I replied that I worked for a talk show, she said, “That’s nice. Are you a secretary?” There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary, but the comment stung for two reasons: one, that the woman’s first thought was that I occupied an administrative position, as if a black woman could aspire to nothing higher, and two, it seemed that she wanted to diminish any prestige I had.
Much of what I critique in my short story collection Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage goes beyond the innocuous comments some white women make to the black women in their lives. “Becky” isn’t synonymous with “white woman,” nor do I believe a genuine curiosity about the customs of another race or culture is a sign of unbridled privilege at work. I’m calling out a cutesy but sinister undercurrent of superiority and entitlement. Think Elle Woods meets Ann Coulter. Not that black women are victims; I think most of us grow weary traversing the steep paths and crooked lanes of Beckyville on the daily.
If you’ve read this far and the above behaviors sound like something you routinely engage in, consider this your Becky intervention. Not that it’s our job to educate you on offensive language or actions, but if you want to have a genuine, meaningful relationship with your BBF (Best Black Friend), here are Ten Becky Behaviors to Avoid:
1.) Asking a black woman, particularly a stranger, “Can I touch your hair?” and petting her while doing so. Similarly, asking, “How often do you wash your hair?” or “Is your hair real?”
2.) Beginning sentences with, “I don’t understand. I thought black women liked …”
3.) Ending sentences with, “I’m sure you agree, right?”
4.) Telling a black woman she “looks just like” Whoopi Goldberg or Star Jones because she has a similar hairstyle.
5.) Attempting to set your single black girlfriend up with the one black guy you know.
6.) Wondering aloud why black women are so angry. Similarly, believing black women are a monolith and incapable of independent thought.
7.) Telling your black girlfriends you don’t see race, and then proceeding to describe the hot black guys you date on the regular.
8.) Expressing surprise that a black woman is knowledgeable about tech issues or politics or any non-entertainment topic.
9.) Singing aloud song lyrics that include “nigga” and “black bitches.”
10.) Speaking in the vernacular when recounting your conversation with a black woman, complete with eye rolling and neck swiveling.
The list could go on. Feel free to add you own.