I mentioned that doolally conversation at Feminist Philosophers over “Becky” the other day.

Prof Manners introduced Becky in her first paragraph:

I’ve watched the last few days as philosophy social media and now blogs lit up with the crisis at Hypatia over Rebecca Tuvel’s article on transracialism. (Summary of some of the commentary here.) Throughout, I have been dismayed by the way that people I respect or whose work I admire have taken out after each other, engaging in pugilistic, hostile, sneering interactions that now apparently pass for debate. Along the way I acquired a more current insult vocabulary by osmosis. I learned that calling someone “Becky” is an insult, among other things.

And again in her last:

Behaving as if solving the “Tuvel problem” will alter the deep problems we have conscripted her into personifying is, I believe, to wrong her. But even if you disagree with me about that and imagine that what she has likely endured the last few days is wholly warranted by what she wrote, consider the litany of problems above, consider the litany of systemic problems we have conscripted her into personifying and ask whether addressing her solves any of those problems. I don’t think it does. Worse, it risks certifying as acceptable laying the mountain of our profession’s problems on one untenured scholar. To be clear, we heap burdens on scholars in inequitable ways with a disturbing frequency – our professional gate-keeping is one iteration of how we do this. Treating one scholar, one untenured woman scholar, as the symbolic personification of the profession’s ills – raising petitions against her work, engaging in public insult of her (see: Becky), and so forth – will not fix what ails us. It is a symptom of what ails us. And what ails us is legion.

You’ll never guess what happened next.

Rebecca Kukla commented:

So I’m deeply sympathetic to your core point about structures versus individuals, but this bothers me: in order to not have known already that ‘Becky’ is an insult, you have to have completely insulated yourself from even the very most mainstream products of Black culture. And you sound almost proud of that ignorance here.And that’s kind of the problem, right? This is why people of color (and trans folks) are suspicious. Because they are being judged by people who kind of willfully know nothing about them.

I don’t want this to come off as hostile. There is a lot that I like about this post, but there are also points here that need to be made about white ignorance and epistemic justice.

I didn’t look up Rebecca Kukla until yesterday. When I did I was gobsmacked to learn that she’s a grownup academic, at Georgetown, with a string of publications.

Prof Manners responded:

Rebecca, I am not proud of my ignorance and admit that I only discovered the meaning of “Becky” by googling it after seeing it thrown around on Facebook feeds. It did come as a surprise to me that it derives from Black culture, as all of the many I saw using it on Facebook were white commentators. I then also asked my child about it and apparently her high school experience is similar – it has been, at least in some quarters, appropriated as a white-on-white insult. This too is apparently a cultural fact and one I find unsettling in several ways.

To the more general point about insularity though and at risk of sounding defensive, I am not at all up to date on most of popular culture of any sort. That too is an ignorance that I am not boasting about, but just a fact of my own overstretched life. I do protest the idea that fluency in contemporary insult is an expectation of epistemic justice. I am confident that my epistemic limitations are many, but this?

I protest that idea too. Well no I don’t, I point at it and say it’s ludicrous and an insult to the intelligence of everyone present.

Another commenter:

Hi Rebecca, perhaps you are epistemically well placed to learn that ‘Becky’ is an insult because your first name is Rebecca. I first learnt this about a year ago, watching Beyonce’s Lemonade video album. As bell hooks pointed out, this is a particularly well calibrated commodification of black American womanist culture. Do you have better suggestions for remedying white ignorance? Following people on black twitter? Personally, I wouldn’t hold ignorance of a twitter insult against anyone.

At that point, the other day, I googled it and the Urban Dictionary told me it has to do with blow jobs. Becky’s generous with them, or doesn’t charge much, or something along those lines.

Kukla explained why she was right:

It has nothing to do with my being named Rebecca. The insult goes back to Vanity Fair but has been live in black culture from Sir Mix-a-Lot and Beyonce. Those are two really hard popular figures to know nothing about. Look, people are not responsible for knowing about pop culture. But when something is associated with a towering, maximally mainstream icon of black culture, I think being snarky about not knowing it or acting like it is arcane knowledge is inappropriate in this conversation.


The conversation goes on for many more comments. It doesn’t improve.

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