One morning in April of this year, a woman in my city saw two men using a coal-fired barbecue in an area of a park designated for non-charcoal fires. She called the police. But this was Oakland, California — so the woman who called the police was white, and the people having the barbecue were black.
Unfortunately for this woman, a local environmental consultant, almost all of her encounter with the alleged offenders, witnesses, and Oakland police was captured on video. And this video set in motion a series of events that would bring her face-to-face with the full force of Black social media activism. She was just the latest in a string of white people caught on video either during or immediately after calling the police to report African Americans actively engaged in what Black Twitter users have dubbed #LivingWhileBlack.
#LivingWhileBlack means all those activities deemed perfectly acceptable by anyone else but viewed as criminal when undertaken by someone who is Black.
#LivingWhileBlack means all those activities deemed perfectly acceptable by anyone else but viewed as criminal when undertaken by someone who is Black. A student taking a nap in the lounge of their Ivy League dormitory. A couple friends waiting until all members of their party are present before ordering their drinks at Starbucks. Two friends lighting up a barbecue late one Sunday morning.
Anyone familiar with the joke-cracking, irreverent, up-all-night hive mind of Black Twitter could see a snap attack looming on the horizon. Within hours of the confrontation making the news on May 9, Black Twitter was creating, posting, and retweeting increasingly outrageous photo collages of the woman they dubbed #BBQBecky. She was calling the Oakland Police Department on Rosa Parks for sitting at the front of a segregated bus; on Martin Luther King Jr. for holding a March on Washington; on the Soul Train dancers for getting too funky. One of the most retweeted images depicts Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in the background, Dora Milaje from Black Panther in the foreground — and #BBQBecky in the lower-left corner, phone at her ear, calling the local police.
I discovered Black Twitter on June 19, 2013, the day celebrity chef Paula Deen admitted to using the N-word and tolerating racist jokes in her popular restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. In the snap attack that followed, Black Twitter users repurposed the hashtag Deen had been using to promote her recipes. By the end of the day, #PaulasBestDishes had been used 13,000 times, with suggestions including “Klan chowder,” “Nigs in a blanket,” “We Shall Over-Crumb Cake,” and “Lynchables.”
Black Twitter neither grieved nor groused over Deen’s apparent racism, but instead plunged directly into its center, poking around in it, and then reshaping it into something Black people could use — source material for a good, long, laugh-so-hard-you-have-to-get-up-and-walk-around-the-room kind of laugh.
A day or two of playful signifying at the expense of a target whose racist behavior allows for guilt-free, no-holds-barred capping.
Yet while the Black Twitter snap attack is a 21st-century phenomenon, it echoes the age-old tradition of signifying, a mode of expressive performance with deep roots in African and Afro-diasporic culture.
To signify is to use language, movement, music, or clothing in an improvisation that communicates, innovates, and entertains. You might know it from the impromptu snap competition known as “the dozens,” most commonly associated with the “yo’ mama” jokes tradition (as in, “yo’ mama so old, her Social Security number is one”). Black fraternity and sorority step shows, rap and beatbox cyphers, and breakdancing competitions are all shaped, at least in part, by their function as opportunities to signify on and for others.
Yet signifying isn’t limited to speaking, music, and dance. The brother who shows up at a black-tie event wearing a pink fur coat is signifying on everyone in the room. And if ghostriding the whip is not signifying — on law enforcement, common sense, and those brothers who think it’s enough simply to sit behind the wheel — then I’m not sure what is.
Even in Black communities with centuries-old traditions, the dancer, singer, storyteller, or musician who creates, in the moment, a new and stylistically compelling improvisation on an established theme, storyline, dance move, melody, or beat earns respect and status for their skill and creativity, as well as for their understanding of the community and its sensibilities. To create a new and unexpected variation on or within an existing frame depends, after all, on the improvisor’s knowledge and understanding of what has come before, as well as the issues, conditions, and experiences that shape their audience today.
Whether in a witty tweet, a skillful breakdancing routine, a thrilling athletic performance, a stirring jazz improvisation, or a well-placed yo-mama joke, the relationship between the person who is signifying and their audience is reciprocal and affirming. To deliver the dance move or vocal run that makes your audience gasp, sit up, and moan with approval, or to share the joke or meme that moves the hearer or viewer to a good hard laugh is to say I see you and where you come from, my sister/my brother/my peeps. For the audience member to react with amazement and pleasure is to reply, in the words of the African American poet Lucille Clifton, “we be the same/me and you/coming from the same place.”
This is especially powerful and transformative when the performer is outside Black settings and events. It calls attention to the fact that Black people are present, and that the presence of people of African descent does, however briefly, transform the shape of that space. We saw this recently when, in a 2017 victory over the Chicago Bears, several of the Black defensive linemen on the Philadelphia Eagles football team celebrated a Corey Graham interception by doing the Electric Slide. We saw it when Serena Williams marked her gold-medal performance at the 2012 London Olympics with a celebratory Crip Walk dance, named for the Crips gang in Williams’ hometown of Compton, California. And we saw it when UCLA gymnast Sophina DeJesus ended her hip-hop-inspired floor routine with a breathtaking dab that got every UCLA fan up out of their seats.
Each of these moments of signifying took on a different sort of political resonance, calling attention to the presence of Blackness, but also quite deliberately affirming white supremacy’s greatest fear — that the presence of Black people does make a difference; that, when Black people enter and hold space, things will not be the same as they were before, whether on Twitter, in elite tennis, in Division I gymnastics, in the NFL, or anywhere else Blackness has either been excluded or regulated.
The only adequate response is ridicule.
#BBQBecky is just the latest in many years of Black Twitter snap attacks leveled against both individuals (Paula Deen, Rachel Dolezal, Matt Damon, Don Lemon) and media organizations (the Oscars, CNN) whose comments or actions are experienced by many Black Twitter users as racist.
Yet browse through the most high-profile snap attacks — #BBQBecky, #OscarsSoWhite, #PaulasBestDishes — and you’ll notice that very few users address the offending party. The original offense is simply an invitation for Black folks to show up and show out for themselves and each other, to engage in a day or two of playful signifying at the expense of a target whose racist behavior allows for guilt-free, no-holds-barred capping.
There are those, however, who do address the offending individual or institution directly. The #StayMadAbby hashtag rebutted Abigail Fisher’s claim that she’d lost her place in the University of Texas–Austin class of 2012 to a less qualified person of color. Black Twitter responded by posting photos of Twitter users of African descent in their graduation regalia, often accompanied by a brief recitation of their academic honors and achievements. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, created by the activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, was adopted by people of all ethnicities, both on and off social media, as an expression of their support for broad policing reforms and for racial justice in general.
When Black lives are lost to state violence, or when African American college students are scapegoated, Black Twitter is there to amplify our voices. But a powerful part of that resistance and resilience is when Black Twitter meets white racism with humor, because Paula Deen’s antebellum language and attitudes, the racial homogeneity of the Oscars, and the antics of #BBQBecky are so absurd that the only adequate response is ridicule. And so the snap has become a collective ritual in which both racist and racism are reduced to a parody of their own bigotry and fear. It’s a kind of cultural conjuring.
Many African American activists point to the need for safe spaces to provide Black people with a temporary respite from the pain of racist micro- and macroaggressions. Yet for Black Twitter, safety feels like any space in which Black people can dominate the discourse, even if only for the brief period when a hashtag is trending. We hold that space as a Black community, publicly engaging our resistance and using it for empowerment and joy.