Executive Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.
Maybe you’ve seen this clip from 2013: A white woman with a stroller in tow stands in a Los Angeles Apple Store berating a black employee, her voice echoing through the store and attracting onlookers. “I was told by AppleCare that I could walk in the store and get the part!” she yells. She seems beside herself at the supposed mistreatment, and the resulting temper tantrum suggests a 3-year-old’s sense of proportion. In front of her, the Apple Store employee quietly nods, outwardly unfazed by this woman’s tirade but almost certainly suppressing a far less generous reaction. And why bother? Clearly, this is a woman on the verge of demanding to speak to the manager.
The clip went viral, and today it’s been looped on Vine more than 31 million times. For the most part, people laughed at the sheer absurdity of the spectacle, and rightfully so. But there’s more going on here than gawking at a public breakdown. In the past few years, some on the internet have tried to develop a language for describing the specific kind of entitlement that the Apple Store Lady embodied—one that seems to be tolerated only from white people. The best example is a collection of seemingly unrelated images: a white woman with a short, spiky, blonde haircut (reminiscent of Kate Gosselin’s famous do), a minivan, a pair of Bermuda jean shorts, and two white children in the midst of a physical altercation. The caption for this collage reads, “The ‘Can I speak to the Manager?’ starter kit.” It’s a digital caricature illustrating a particular kind of white person—one who would see no problem asking to speak to the manager over a minor inconvenience or for receiving service that doesn’t meet her standards.
Through images and posts like this, the phrase “Can I speak to the manager?” has emerged as a shorthand for the excesses of privileged whiteness (a look at Google Trends points to sometime in 2014 as to when the phrase became popularly used). But why does this particular sentiment feel so salient right now?
In order for something to become a successful meme, there has to be some level of relatability. Something about the joke has to resonate enough for you to share it with others. The fact that “Can I speak to the manager?” has so quickly become a part of internet vernacular suggests that the experience of white people acting wildly entitled—and appealing to, presumably, other white authority figures—is fairly ubiquitous. Whether you’ve worked in the service industry or retail or not, you know what this sort of eruption looks like. A white woman screaming at a cashier is just a very visceral manifestation of something that exists in every part of our lives: white privilege.
While our collective awareness of privilege has certainly grown in the past few years, discussing it is still something that requires a lot of nuance. It’s almost never something comfortable to do, and the onus typically falls on people from a marginalized group (i.e., people of color) to lead the conversation. Fortunately, the language of the internet offers a means for those people to have a dialogue and to create a language of their own to have those conversations. The meme-ification of “Can I speak to your manager?” then represents a release valve, a way of working through the frustration of being a victim of white entitlement while laughing at it, a small but entertaining effort at “punching up” at the social dynamics at work around us.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason the phrase has gained such purchase of late. Headlines from the past few months have seemed to one-up each other in more ridiculous situations where white people have felt it necessary to call the police on black people—things like taking a nap or going to the pool or mowing a lawn. Out of those headlines, characters like BBQ Becky and Permit Patty became memes of their own (for a black family having a barbecue and a black 8-year-old selling water, respectively). Clearly, calling the manager isn’t something that white people are just prone to do at Best Buy. But of course, encounters with our societal managers (aka the cops) are, for black people, much more likely to end in the use of excessive force or, worse, even death. In those moments, black people lose their autonomy, and the unjust power dynamics that reverberate all throughout our societal structures are most evident. “Can I speak to your manager?” is a way to take back a bit of that power through biting public mockery, one comically irate white person at a time.
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