Lexicon Valley

How “Show Me the Receipts” Became a Catchphrase for Holding the Powerful Accountable



Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

There are two types of receipt: The receipt you have and the receipt you don’t. They complement each other—supply and demand, triumph and challenge, “I’m here with the receipts” and “Really? Show me the receipts.

We aren’t talking about translucent little slips of paper itemizing expenditures. We are talking about proof, evidence, confirmation. Receipts equal the contraband found under the mattress, the DNA on the trigger, the absolute final word.

When Kim Kardashian leaked Snapchat footage of Taylor Swift apparently approving some lines in a Kanye West song she would later criticize, the internet threw a party. “Looks like she’s got receipts,” crowed GQ, referring to Kardashian, who released the video to defend her husband after Swift publicly took him to task. (Problem couplet, which, sure, partakes of the problematic: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ I made that bitch famous.”) When the track dropped in 2016, Taylor acted mad and even negged Kanye while accepting her Album of the Year Grammy—a feminist “victory” rusted over with the implication that, huzzah, a dewy white woman had overcome a hostile black man to net a prize that rightfully belonged to another black man, Kendrick Lamar.

ANYWAY. Kim Kardashian torched Swift’s I’m-disappointed-in-you-Kanye charade this week, posting a Snapchat story that captured the pop star assuring the rapper, re his lyric: “I really appreciate you telling me about it, that’s really nice.” “Kardashian,” mused the brilliant Damon Young over at Very Smart Brothas, “is actually Swahili for ‘white woman with receipts.’ ”

How to account for the cathartic satisfaction of receipts? Maybe it has to do with the fact that the receipt first manifested in pop culture as an absence—as something yearned for but out of reach. As Alex Abad-Santos tells us at Vox, Whitney Houston introduced the concept of the receipt during a fantastically woozy 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer. Asked to comment on an alleged $730,000 drug habit, Houston tilted her head to the left and cocked her thumb and pointer finger. “I wanna see the receipts,” she said smoothly. “I wanna see the receipts.”

It was a subversive taunt, the equivalent of O.J. Simpson penning a “fictionalized” tell-all with the title If I Did It. Houston called up the specter of the missing receipts to poke fun at Sawyer’s impotence. She wasn’t so much clearing her name as luxuriating in immunity.

But asking for receipts can also express sincere distrust, especially of authorities that might assume they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt.

Interestingly, receipts circa now are just as likely to be present as absent. It’s not only let’s see some receipts; it’s and I’ve got the receipts right here. The year 2016 is flush with documentation, stupid with hard evidence. Tumblrs like Problematic Fave are devoted to curating “celeb receipts”—social media posts that prove a famous person’s wrongdoing. (Recent revelations from the page: “Richard O’Brien says trans people can’t become women.” “Rapper B.O.B. promotes Holocaust denial.”) The receipt boom registers a shift in our society: Where the powerful once exercised their power with relative impunity, now we might be seeing glimmers of accountability.

At least, that’s the spirit in which receipts got started on the internet. Post-Houston, the concept appears to have germinated on LiveJournal—particularly a blog devoted to celebrity shenanigans called Oh No They Didn’t—and moved to Tumblr, where “receipts” referred to screen caps of abusive or offensive comments. Mainstream Hollywood coverage jumped on the bandwagon. In 2013, Page Six reported that comedian Julie Klausner had spiced up a promotional appearance for Difficult People by declaring Gwyneth Paltrow “one of the phoniest backstabbers in Tinseltown.” Klausner refuted the charge on Twitter, writing she had “no idea why Page Six decided to report on an alleged beef I have with Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I have never met.” Journalist Oli Coleman then released the audio in which Klausner clearly dissed the Goop founder. The refrain of the ensuing media tempest-in-a-teacup: Coleman “provides the receipts.”

Now that Melania Trump seems to have cribbed lines from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, we’re again seeing a snowfall of receipts, in the form of video, audio, and transcript comparisons of the two addresses.

As with Swift and West, here receipts are being procured to make sure a white person doesn’t get away with the kind of nonsense she might have been able to subject a person of color to in the past.

Likewise, in asking to see the receipts, Whitney Houston did something more profound than mock Sawyer’s inability to pin her down. She appealed to a higher authority than a white woman’s suspicions. Much of contemporary race relations is slippery, unspoken, or unconscious, with  bias often wrapped in plausible deniability. But no one can argue with a piece of paper.

And that’s why this bit of slang—which like most U.S. slang has flourished especially in black vernaculars—packs an undeniable punch. Those who deal with a lot of nebulous discrimination have found power in the impartiality of screenshots and audio clips. Without calling them “receipts,” impromptu videographers have been brandishing the evidence, from the bystanders who recorded two police officers pinning Alton Sterling to the ground and shooting him to Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of the Minnesota man who was executed during a traffic stop. In his “I Have a Dream Speech”—excerpted by Beyoncé in a stunning performance that opened the 2016 BET Awards—Martin Luther King Jr. described “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt … So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Perhaps the soaring idealism of his address didn’t permit King to say it outright, but his check-cashers at the bank of justice would be foolish not to ask for a receipt.