BusyBodyism: The Internet Brew of Whiteness and Class

BusyBodyism: The Internet Brew of Whiteness and Class

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because the problem MIGHT be you.

By Eugene S. Robinson

The two-step is familiar at this point. Wearyingly so. Shaky cellphone video of someone, usually a white someone, imagining that they’ve been elected ruler of the BBQ pits, the dog run, the sidewalk, your house or any admixture of public and private spaces, questioning the videographer’s right to exist within the aforementioned space.

The videographer, often a person of color, more often than not protests, but does so well aware of the footage they’re getting: internet gold in the cinema of BusyBodyism.

Then there is the grand premiere and the consequent climb to the top of the Twitterverse. Public protestation of innocence, denial of racist intent. Apology (possibly) forthcoming. Job loss, not always inevitable, but often probable. And there we have it, the life cycle of modern busybodyism.

It’s a perfect storm of know-nothingism and just a general, always-on level of hostility. Which, incidentally, closely frames our current political life in America today.

Jimi Izrael, author and culture critic

The perpetrators, popularly now called Karens — and for the male corollary sometimes a Ken — evince a dogged, if unspoken, assertion that they, white folks, are carrying Rudyard Kipling’s burden of policing the non-white world. It would be nice to say that it hasn’t always been this way, the weaponizing of whiteness, but it very much has.

What’s different now?

The internet. In many more ways than one. You see, the internet, the agora where there’s no field of endeavor obscure enough that YOUR opinion is not only requested but desired, has created monsters.

Example: Are you an epidemiologist? Do you know an epidemiologist? Have you, in any recent online forum, expressed an opinion on epidemiology?

More than likely, this has been you at some point and, unburdened by the ever-present reality of a possible face-to-face punch in the nose, maybe things got a little salty. It didn’t matter. Like Professor Irwin Corey, your laptop let you, for even the shortest, most glorious moment in time, be the world’s foremost authority on just about anything you like.

Colored, more often than not, by this prevailing idea that you’re entitled to do so. Where might you have gotten this idea?

“It’s a perfect storm of know-nothingism and just a general, always-on level of hostility,” says culture critic Jimi Izrael. “Which, incidentally, closely frames our current political life in America today. ”

But a closer look reveals some curious corollaries. The perpetrators, in addition to being white, are rarely people in their 20s. Amy Cooper, the Central Park caller and scofflaw? Forty years old. Lisa Alexander, the San Francisco caller who valiantly called the police on a Filipino man stenciling the front of his own house (full disclosure: her husband, the now-fired Ken, Robert Larkins, is a former classmate of mine), is 55.

And the numbers accrue: Jennifer “BBQ Becky” Schulte, 43. Lena Hernandez, Gail Hayden? Definitely not in their 20s. So is it generational? Or situational? A way for the socially invisible to regain some visibility, even if their 15 minutes of fame is part of a punchline about continued social inequities and sticking your nose in places where it doesn’t belong?

“You know poor people don’t do this,” says podcast host Sal Russo. “And working-class people are not doing this to people they might think are upper-class. So it’s a class-based putting on of airs. Except the outcomes could be tragic if/when the police are involved.”

Because police are life and death indicators. And having to walk by someone stenciling Black Lives Matter on their house in chalk is not a life and death matter, in micro.

Which may account for why there are so few people of color who are Karens/Kens. People of color are on the internet just as much as anyone else but perhaps living in communities where no one believes that being a busybody is the key to anyone having a good day is the sine qua non.

And yes, while it does take a village, there’s a big difference between caring about your community and kicking your community’s ass into compliance. Or to make assumptions about which members of that community are indeed members of that community.

Sure, there is the broken windows theory of policing that states that visible signs of criminal behavior encourages more criminal behavior, so address them early and often. However, the busybody’s actions and activities are predicated not on what is visible but by what they imagine they are seeing, and this is where it gets dicey.

Because outside of the worldwide web, there is a real place populated by real people. Exercising their constitutional rights and even embracing community standards, as they are entitled to do, as they go about their days.

My advice, then? Since no one has really asked for your help, leave these very real people alone. Your services are better served being directed to something you might recognize as what Hank Williams called “your own business.” It might be hard, but it also might be worth a try. If for no other reason than that at the end of the day? You get to at least keep your job.