Pettiness often manifests itself as an outsize form of revenge — responding to mild slights by putting an absurd amount of energy into plotting meaningless reprisals. (One theory even claims this is how Donald Trump wound up president: His drive to run swelled when Barack Obama made fun of him at a fancy dinner.) There is something unseemly about this habit among the powerful. But when it’s practiced by others, there is a delicious sense of possibility in it — a kind of freedom in going to the mat over things you’re expected to brush off. Hence black Twitter’s embrace of the concept, which sloshes through the digital world in countless jokes and anecdotes and reaction GIFs from black television shows: say, a clip of Traci Braxton, of WE TV’s “Braxton Family Values,” spelling out “P-E-T-T-Y,” or the one from Bravo’s “Married to Medicine,” in which Quad Webb-Lunceford says, “Honey, you are petty boots!”
Here, “petty” constitutes a reclamation. Just like the insults “geek” and “nerd” have been adopted as proud signifiers of niche interests, identifying as petty signals a willingness to point out slights and center details that are overlooked in the wider culture. But while geeks are imagined as masculine and white, petty is both racialized and a little bit feminized. It’s a light cultural rejoinder to the concept of microaggressions, those passing instances of everyday racism that add up into a larger, more insidious picture. (See, for instance, Bossip’s gleeful dragging of Taylor Swift’s “kale-infused” and “tapioca-splattered” performance of innocence, and the “hilariously petty” reactions it’s inspired.)
As with every cultural trend pioneered by black people, white people can’t wait to make pettiness their own. BuzzFeed, a master of laundering black internet trends for bigger, whiter audiences, recently added pettiness to its emotional palette, compiling celebratory lists of petty memes and petty texts scraped from social media — often originally posted by black users. The word is emblazoned on sweatshirts, on tote bags, on necklaces. The trouble is that, when you strip pettiness of cultural necessity and make it accessible up the ranks of the privileged, it risks becoming something monstrous. Not everyone in America can be the underdog, leveraging his or her own grievances as refreshing and liberating. At some level, all you have is a powerful person putting all of his weight behind a pointless, small-minded fight.
Amanda Hess, “Small Talk”, The New York Times Magazine (10 December 2017), 16.