The March of the Karens

WORDS ARE HAUNTED things. However unmoored from origins, they still carry within them the old meanings, like a debris of code that resists deletion or a latent brood of cicadas, waiting to surface.

In recent years, “Karen” has become an epithet for a type of interfering, hectoring white woman, the self-appointed hall monitor unloosed on the world, so assured of her status in society that she doesn’t hesitate to summon the authorities — demanding to speak to the manager or calling the police — for the most trivial and often wholly imaginary transgressions. The name is not entirely arbitrary: It’s a relic of an older, more conservative America, catapulted from relative obscurity to the 20 most popular choices for newborn girls in 1941 and hovering near the top of the list for three decades. (At its height of fashion in 1965, it ranked third only after those stalwarts Mary and Lisa, which means most of today’s Karens are in their mid-50s.) Ubiquity rendered Karen generic, an emblem of conformity, granting her the safety of being thoroughly average. By 2020, its usage, already in severe decline before its hijacking as a term of mockery, had fallen to pre-Depression levels.

But long before the name Karen infiltrated American culture, it was a Danish contraction of Katherine, which is attributed variously (onomasts are uncertain) to the Greek “katharos” — “pure, clean, unsullied” — or to Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, who, surrounded by watchdogs, presides over places of transition: crossroads, borders, graveyards. What is left of these roots in the modern Karen? Certainly, she sets herself up as a guardian of purity, patrolling boundaries at a time when a white-dominated society is transforming into a multicultural one and condemning disruptions of what she sees as the proper order.

This manifests alarmingly in confrontations with people of color, particularly Black people, as recorded in numerous videos posted on social media, including those of Karens who have called 911 to voice suspicions about an 8-year-old Black girl selling bottles of water on the sidewalk in San Francisco, a 9-year-old Black boy in a deli in Brooklyn whose backpack bumped against a white woman (“I was just sexually assaulted,” she told the police) and a Black man entering his own apartment building in St. Louis, all in 2018; a Black uniformed UPS worker delivering packages in Atlanta in 2019; and, in 2020, a Black man bird-watching in Central Park and Black children swimming in a pool at the hotel where their family was staying in Williamston, N.C.

It’s tempting to cast Karen as a straight-up malevolent figure — one of Hecate’s latter-day minions, a witch lying in wait to derail and devour the innocent. For most of American history, a white woman’s accusation could be enough to destroy a Black person, as in the savage killing by two white men of the 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, after a white woman named Carolyn Bryant claimed that he had whistled at her. As the journalist Damon Young wrote on The Root last year, Karen is too “cutesy” and flippant a name for such murderousness, like “memeifying death.”

There’s a difference in these contemporary Karen narratives, however, a key moral to the story: She doesn’t get away with it — or, at least, not quite, or not always. For Karen has only words as weapons, and those words no longer hold as much power as they once did; she must turn, instead, to people with real power to enforce her wishes, and they resist. When the police show up, they don’t necessarily take her side. So often the cops appear as villains in these kinds of scenarios, but this time around some of them recognize that the Black men grilling are just grilling, and that the Filipino man who stenciled “Black Lives Matter” on the wall of his front yard does in fact live there. Truth prevails. One emergency dispatcher in 2018 was so confounded by the vehemence of a caller reporting Black men barbecuing in a park in Oakland, Calif., that she asked if the woman had experienced mental health issues and warned the police that the complainant “sounds 5150,” meaning someone who can be involuntarily held for up to 72 hours because they might pose a danger to themselves or others.

The triumph of the viral Karen video — as opposed to the tragedy of videos documenting police violence against Black people — is that it’s not just evidence of the insidious (and sometimes fatal) dailiness of discrimination. It’s vindication. The accuser is unmasked as an unreliable narrator, thwarted and defanged, and publicly paraded as an object of scorn. Sometimes she even loses her job (which may say more about the unilateral power of employers than it does about social consensus on issues of race). Typically, she retreats from view, deletes her social media accounts and is never heard from again (or at least not until other videos distract a restive public).

Posted online and watched by millions, the Karen video offers a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy in which racism is actually punished. It’s a fantasy not only for people of color but for white people, too, who are among the most vociferous in their denunciations of Karen, perhaps seeking to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might be complicit in her actions or capable of them. To go even further: It’s a white person’s fantasy that racism is just a matter of a few semi-hysterical, possibly mentally unstable characters, ranting on the fringes, dismissed with a flick of the screen.

ONLY KAREN WAS never an anomaly. Miss Ann (sometimes Miss Anne) was her forerunner, coming from Southern Black vernacular of the 19th century — the mistress of the plantation, the boss lady (and proto-girlboss), with a mandatory honorific. While she was subordinate to the white man (Mr. Charlie), she still held a higher status in the hierarchy than Black people and exploited this for all she was worth, alternately imperious and dainty, belligerent and helpless, depending on context. The moniker has persisted: The writer Zora Neale Hurston listed it in a glossary appended to her 1942 short fiction “Story in Harlem Slang,” the memoirist and civil rights activist Maya Angelou deployed it in her poem “Sepia Fashion Show” in 1969 (“I’d remind them please, look at those knees, / you got at Miss Ann’s scrubbing”) and as late as 2016, when CNN exit polls for the presidential election indicated that more than 40 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump, the journalist Amy Alexander, writing on The Root, explained the results as the “Miss Ann effect.”

But as Carla Kaplan, a professor of American literature, notes in “Miss Anne in Harlem” (2013), by the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, a more subtle white woman had come to earn the name — one who intentionally entered Black spaces at a time when other white people denounced such an act “as either degeneracy or lunacy.” Some of these women were activists, others mere thrill-seekers or provocateurs, their motives and desires ranging “from dreadful to honorable,” Kaplan writes, and they were greeted in the Black community with caution.

It’s a white person’s fantasy that racism is just a matter of a few semi-hysterical, possibly mentally unstable characters, ranting on the fringes, dismissed with a flick of the screen.

Likewise, today’s Karen contains multitudes. Her bias isn’t necessarily overt; she may believe she doesn’t have any. She’s the liberal white girlfriend perfectly at ease dissing the cop who asks her Black boyfriend for I.D., counting on her whiteness to prevent violence, and simultaneously a psychopath who sees Black people as mere vehicles for white self-actualization, as in Jordan Peele’s 2017 film, “Get Out.” She’s bipartisan, at once the conservative TV show host Megyn Kelly, waxing nostalgic in 2018 for a time when blackface was “OK,” and the progressive senator Elizabeth Warren, who, as a law professor in the 1980s and 1990s, identified herself as Native American (and was accorded minority status) based solely on family folklore about a distant ancestor at least six generations removed.

Widen the lens and any white woman — every white woman — could be a Karen, if she’s perceived as taking for granted the advantages bestowed by her skin color and ignoring the labor and suffering of others. Earlier this year, Rachel Hollis, a best-selling author of self-help books, was criticized as “unrelatable” for having a housekeeper whom she breezily described as someone who “cleans the toilets.” She defended herself by saying that she worked really hard to be able to afford a housekeeper — “most people don’t work this hard” — then drew an implicit comparison between herself and other “unrelatable” women, like the American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and made it her mission to help others do the same, and the Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out against limits on girls’ education. To blithely presume kinship with such luminaries was both jarring and revealing of the delusions of grandeur that make these women Karens.

Even the young feminist heroines of the 2019 film “Booksmart” could be considered Karens: erstwhile good girls jonesing for a night of debauchery, who cite the civil rights activist Rosa Parks as a role model for breaking the rules, although in their case, this just means drinking and partying, then joking with the cops when one of them gets arrested the next morning. The ghost of Karen shimmers, too, in almost every character played by the actress Reese Witherspoon, from the relentless teenage overachiever Tracy Flick in “Election” (1999) to the domineering, narcissistic mothers in the TV series “Big Little Lies” (2017-19) and “Little Fires Everywhere” (2020). Arguably part of Witherspoon’s bankability as a movie star is her ability to bring nuance to and evoke empathy for these figures — to let an audience of predominantly and similarly privileged women recognize, rebuke and ultimately forgive a dark side of themselves.

Worse than being called a Karen is discovering that you are one, as in Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2019 short story “White Women LOL,” when a white woman named Jill spies a table of elegantly dressed Black strangers at a private party at a restaurant and tells them diplomatically (or so she thinks) that they should leave. Once her action is exposed in a video posted on Facebook, she finds no succor — not from her white husband, who wonders why she didn’t approach the manager instead (still a Karen move), nor from the party’s white hostess, who is mostly put out that now people know she had a party and didn’t invite them. Jill is conscious of herself as a victim, shunned by friends and suspended from work (“with pay,” her husband points out), but also feels guilty for how quickly she presumed that the Black diners “didn’t belong.”

To atone for her sins, she dedicates herself to a lonely quest, searching for the missing Shih Tzu of the one wealthy Black mom at her children’s school. (The other Black families live outside the neighborhood; the party’s hostess, who coolly informs Jill that “there’s a continuum between white supremacy and insensitivity,” has herself been known to refer to Black students as “deseg kids” — short for “desegregation.”) At the story’s end, with her Shih Tzu quarry in sight, Jill curls up in a ball and whimpers, reverting to the tried-and-true white trope of a damsel in distress, hoping that the dog will be persuaded by her performance of injury to venture within reach, the better to trap him; waiting “to see if he will try to help her or if she will have to help herself.”

NOT ALL OF Karen’s aggressions explicitly involve race. Sometimes she’s just mad in general, the angry white woman who, in the middle of the pandemic, coughed on people in a bagel shop in New York City when asked to wear a mask, or who insisted on seeing the “manager” of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport this past spring after she was late for a flight and not allowed to board (and was later arrested on charges of public intoxication). Before Karen was a racist, she was simply belligerent or even merely annoying. In one early instance of the name as an insult, in 2005, the white comedian Dane Cook cited Karen as the exemplar of the “one person, in every group of friends, that nobody [expletive] likes,” adding: “Karen is always a douchebag.” A decade later, she was the ex-wife of a Reddit commentator (the account has since been deleted) whose angsty chronicling of her supposed cruelty eventually inspired, in 2017, a thread devoted to the evils of her kind.

That the Karen epithet appears to have originated not as a response to racism but out of male hostility has led some white women to condemn it as sexist. Earlier this year, two professors of film studies, Diane Negra, based in Ireland, and Julia Leyda, based in Norway, published an essay framing Karen as “a caricature of the new precarities of middle-class life” whose desperation to make herself heard could be understood as a protest against “the removal of customer agency and recourse in contemporary retail culture” — although white women aren’t the only ones to shop, and late capitalism has, in fact, failed us all, customer and retail worker alike. This argument isn’t that far off from the oft-repeated platitude that white men voted for Donald Trump because they felt ignored and threatened in an increasingly diverse America. Which is to say: because they were no longer guaranteed dominance. (Last year, the essayist Meghan Daum declared, “White women are the new white men.”)

Certainly, white women have been and continue to be subject to oppression, if at times, for those of a certain class, of the more gilded-cage variety. The legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon, in her 1991 essay “From Practice to Theory, or What Is a White Woman Anyway,” took umbrage at the notion that a white woman was nothing more than a white man’s image of her — “effete, pampered, privileged, protected, flighty and self-indulgent” — and “not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother and not economically exploited.” It’s notable that, in “Election,” the despised Tracy Flick is, in fact, a victim, a high-school student sexually exploited by a trusted white male teacher, and that his fall from grace as a result of his crime is somehow portrayed as her ruining his life.

Yet the oppressed can also be oppressors, and white women’s embrace of their own victimhood — as with the singer Lana Del Rey and her “advocacy for fragility,” which aligns uneasily with racial perceptions of white women as delicate flowers to be protected at all costs — poses dangers to people of color who have not traditionally been permitted the same luxury of vulnerability. Again and again, the Karens in viral videos assert their femininity to prove that they’ve been wronged, from the woman at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport shouting, “I am a woman! In a dress!” to the woman in Oakland admonishing Black men for barbecuing in the park and then sobbing when the cops arrive, saying, “I’m being harassed,” to the woman in New York City’s Central Park who, angry that a Black birder had asked her to leash her dog, raised the pitch of her voice to falsely inform a 911 operator that “there is a man, African American … and he is … threatening me.”

Such distress is strategic, the journalist Ruby Hamad writes in “White Tears/Brown Scars” (2020). “Rather than denoting weakness, it signals power” — albeit power accessed only via white men, and only in this context. Framing Black people as a threat has historically been a surefire way for a white woman to win the attention of white men, maybe the one time in her life she is assured of an audience. But by invoking fear of the other, she gains not so much an ally as an enforcer, who leaps to protect her as he would protect a piece of property, less as a specific woman than as an embodiment of white virtue. This merely reaffirms a dynamic in which power means the power to oppress, including oppressing the white women appealing to it.

It’s this clinging to white power by proxy — attempting to claim as your own a power that has traditionally been used against you — that may most define a Karen. Under the banner of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, white women sidelined Black women and aligned themselves with white supremacists down South to boost their chances of winning the vote. Today, the language of white feminism still skews toward a girlboss “Lean In” ethos, as if equality were only a matter of achieving parity with white men in the workplace. “All too often the focus is not on survival but on increasing privilege,” the cultural critic Mikki Kendall notes in “Hood Feminism” (2020).

It’s much easier to get rid of a stray Karen here or there than to burn the whole thing down.

If one of the victories of second-wave feminism in the 1970s is the acceptance of the idea that “the personal is political” — that female experiences should not be cordoned off to the private sphere; that “personal” issues like domestic violence and the need for child care require public solutions — its converse has now taken hold: “The political was reduced to the personal,” Hamad writes. As the journalist Koa Beck elaborates in “White Feminism,” published earlier this year, “The relentless optimization of the self often means that systemic and institutionalized barriers … are reframed as personal problems rather than collective disenfranchisement.” In this framework, feminism is reduced to “a way to get things. A way to get more of the things you thought you deserved. A way to consume.” And so we wind up back at Negra and Leyda’s thesis, that Karen is howling in the wilderness of a bankrupt customer service system, just trying to get a refund.

IN THE END, Karen has less in common with the formidable Hecate (who, for all her association with the netherworld, was characterized as benevolent by the Greek poet Hesiod in the eighth century B.C.) than with the thousands of women accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in the Middle Ages. Whatever her actual misdeeds, she’s a scapegoat. It’s much easier to get rid of a stray Karen here or there than to burn the whole thing down. Young, writing on The Root, has gone so far as to call for a moratorium on the nickname, arguing that it “feels weird and wrong that the Karen has become the contemporary face of white supremacy when white men are way more destructive.” There is a circularity to the conversation, too, in which white women end up reprimanding and censuring themselves; perhaps inevitably, the concept of the Karen has been co-opted by consumerism and turned into a product, as white women actively seek out and subject themselves to criticism in what has become a small industry of books, workshops, consulting services and privately hosted dinners that can cost thousands of dollars, dedicated to helping them confront their complicity with structures of power: guilt as commodity.

Still, if Karen is a potentiality in every privileged woman — and I include myself here, as a half-white, half-Filipino woman of a certain education and class, ever alert for the Karen within — she also represents an opportunity: to question ourselves and how we move through the world, beyond just feeling mournful and vaguely sorry. As the legal scholar and activist Mari J. Matsuda writes in “Where Is Your Body?” (1997), we can make “a deliberate choice to see the world from the standpoint of the oppressed. … We should know of our sister carrying buckets of water up five flights of stairs in a welfare hotel, our sister trembling at 3 a.m. in a shelter for battered women, our sisters holding bloodied children in their arms in Cape Town, on the West Bank and in Nicaragua.” To “know of” is distinct from laying claim to or making a false equivalence of suffering, or pretending that all our struggles are the same; it’s a choice to admit the limits of our personal experience, and learn.

Maybe Karen could be of use, after all, as a creature of the in between, helping us find our way from this world to a better one. “We can choose to know the lives of others,” Matsuda tells us. It begins simply: Who are you? And what is your name?

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