When Life Becomes a Meme

I’d like to talk today about privilege. Specifically, how utterly and completely ridiculous it is when you don’t realize you have it, you behave irrationally, and the media retaliates by turning you into a living meme.

In the past few months there have been a rash of video-based stories all over social and traditional media showing white people verbally and physically assaulting black people for no reason beyond, well, they’re black. Oh, and the white people decided they deserved to be harassed for being somewhere they decided black people should not be. The list of places is long, but a few places include: pools, AirBnB rentals, parks and Ivy League dorms.

The list of “infractions” that prompted the harassment/police calls is even longer, but here are a few examples: being irritable or fat while flying, working outside by yourself, falling asleep while studying for finals, selling water on a hot summer day, refusing to wave at nosy strangers, and attempting to use a community pool, also on a hot summer day. I could go on, but the connections are clear. The police callers I’ll reference here are white females. The “culprits” are black, but here the police callers exhibit some tolerance for diversity in that they are equal opportunity whistleblowers on black men or women.

Note, these incidents are not isolated, nor are they unusual. This sort of thing has been going on forever. But let’s get to know some of the more recent – and most popular – women felled and meme’d by privilege, shall we?

First up, we have former Rodan + Fields sales rep #PoolPatrolPaula aka #SwimmingPoolSteff aka Stephanie Sebby-Strempel. Just this week, Triple S threw fists and slurs at several black teens at a community pool in South Carolina they’d been invited to use. Then, when detectives showed up at her house to serve her with a warrant for third-degree assault for her unprovoked, poolside perniciousness, she bit and injured them, earning herself several more charges. Go Triple S! Nice work, baby. That’ll show those black kids not to swim in that pool.

Also, this week we have #PermitPatty aka Alison Ettel, former CEO for cannabis startup TreatWell Health. She subsequently resigned from her role – “effective immediately” – after a video went viral of her threatening to call the police on 8-year-old Jordan Rodgers. Rogers was stretching her entrepreneurial muscles trying to make a few bucks – and quench the thirst of hot passersby – with a sidewalk water sale near AT&T Park in San Francisco. Ettel later gave a tearful interview to protest her innocence and to drum up sympathy, as she is now a neon symbol for racist idiocy and the victim of apparently ceaseless trolling. Yawn. Cry me a river, honey.

And last but certainly not least, we have the queen of all party poopers and now international laughingstock, Jennifer Schulte aka BBQ Becky. In May, Schulte called the police to report that black people were barbecuing in Oakland’s Lake Merritt Park and – how dare they! – allegedly ignoring a “no charcoal grills” sign. The police did not arrest the culprits, though they did investigate BBQ Becky for an involuntary psychiatric hold. Just days later, hundreds of people turned up at the very same park to celebrate and show their solidarity and freedom for the oh so American right to throw an old-fashioned, good-time barbecue in the park while black.

I wrote this blog quasi-humorously, but this subject matter is anything but funny. Black people are being harassed, in many cases for no reason, and the real culprits don’t seem to get the hint that they need to mind their own business – not even when they lose their jobs, and find their faces all over the media attached to some of the most unsavory and ridiculous imagery possible. Then it’s usually, “I never intended…” and “I have the right to *insert stupid made up right here,*” and “I don’t deserve this trolling/negative attention/firing.” Yes, you did, no, you don’t, and yes, you do. But I guess their privilege is so ingrained, so thick, it acts as a kind of veil between reality and perception, and they dwell in the latter rather than the former.

But let’s unpack the job loss thing because that’s probably – actually it’s the only – behavioral response I’ve referenced that’s easy to explain. Whatever their leaders may personally believe, companies like Rodan + Fields are not interested in having their brands tarnished by one employee’s actions. When you work for someone else, and you behave in a manner they find objectionable – even outside the workplace – most organizations have their legal games tight, complete with policies, so that they can quickly get rid of your foolish self, and begin the lengthy and costly process of rebuilding the brand you damaged by causing hashtags like #boycottrodanfields.

Now, let’s consider that in the context of privilege. When you have privilege your perception of your value in the grand, interconnected ecosystem that is life is skewed – and rightly so because there are many systems at play that reinforce this skewed perception. Privilege will make you think that it’s perfectly acceptable for you to pull the police away from more important things like looking for lost children, investigating elder abuse, catching disgruntled shooters who murder indiscriminately at Washington DC newspapers and hunting down other high caliber criminals, to investigate your petty, “living while black” claims of inconvenience and upset.

The gag is, well, it’s actually two-fold, which speaks to the complexity of these issues. Some of those systems I referenced are taking on water like a holey boat patched with mesh. That’s great. It’s time. Others are stubbornly clinging to their dated, wretched roots.

That’s the game, folks. Of course, you don’t have to listen to me. That’s the wonderful thing about the Internet; removing something you don’t like is just one tiny click away. I’ll still be over here smiling as I stick things into the holes to make them wider, doing my tiny part to help the boat carrying institutional, ingrained, meme-worthy, funeral-causing, time-wasting, career-stalling, record-ruining prejudice, racism, gender bias and discrimination sink faster.

I freely admit, I did laugh up my sleeve that these women appear to have been driven crazy by the mere existence of black people – though they likely had a screw loose before these incidents tipped their respective hands. I figure it’s only fair that someone other than us should suffer for being black.

Anyway, I thank God for social media. It’s one of the most powerful tools we currently have at our disposal to effect positive change in the face of escalating hate toward minorities in this country. Let’s continue to use it to identify racists and inadvertent social media stars everywhere. If you pray, let’s also send up a few good ones that the next few years pass without more harassment, death and mayhem, and that we can turn the tide, and get back on track to become a more diverse, inclusive and respectful nation.

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