Easheta Shah: Recognize your "Karen"

Friday, June 5, 2020 - 2:41pm

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We all know Karen. She is the minority of 30 to 40-year-old white women whose voice is loud despite how misguided and misinformed she is. She exudes entitlement and a superior “Can I speak to the manager?” attitude. She is unafraid to use her privilege as a weapon. In today’s context, she is audibly doubtful of any new COVID-19 research and public-health protocols, especially when her long-overdue salon appointment is at stake. And according to Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher and professor at Kansas State University, Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.” This definition continues to evolve. 

The controversial stereotype of a woman named Karen has roots in African American Vernacular English as well as a tirading subreddit, and it has taken over internet culture in the form of a meme. Karen's notorious behavior is best depicted in viral TikTok videos, acting as a social commentary towards absurd and indecent behavior rooted in white supremacy. However, the use of this meme was quick to receive criticism on accounts of sexism, racism, ageism and classism. While writer Julie Blindel went so far as to call the meme a “slur” that is “woman hating” in a tweet, others even likened it to “the n-word for white women.” In the name of reverse racism and other baseless accusations, the meme continues to be attacked. And once again, the perfectly legitimate message this politicized joke was meant to express was underwhelmed by another fruitless debate. 

The meme is simple: Karen-like behavior is problematic. It is problematic because it is a direct result of white supremacist sentiments that have long been deeply embedded within the current system. It is problematic because when authority gets involved, Karen is initially never at fault and is never doubted. And it is problematic because Karen knows this when she picks up the phone to dial 911 at the slightest inconvenience. In fact, just this past Memorial day, a Twitter video went viral revealing a similar incident in Central Park regarding a white woman calling the police on an African-American man who simply asked her to put a leash on her dog, telling them he was threatening her life. These kinds of false accusations to the police against Black people are extremely dangerous and have dire consequences as history has revealed time and time again, like in the case of Emmett Till. But Karen won’t think twice before racial profiling. 

Defending any similar behavior is problematic — especially on the account of reverse racism. This fictional term assumes that racism exists on a level playing field and that there exists a level of power and authority the Karen meme has to affect the white person’s privileges. But there is no systemic relationship with power here and, if anything, excessive use of the joke contributes to racial prejudice among white women, leaving all their privileges intact. To liken Karen to the “n-word for white women” is completely inappropriate, especially when no word carries the same weight of violent, systemic racism. To use sexism as a victimizing justification for taking advantage of someone’s historical oppression is nothing short of white feminism, using feminism so long as it’s comfortable and self-rewarding and continues to further a white agenda. As commissioning editor Kuba Shand-Baptiste suggests in her column for Independent, “getting to the Karen equals discrimination conclusion requires an enormous leap: Entirely ignoring the racist behaviours the nickname originally intended to personify.”

The Karen debate is not one worth having. Her behavior is explicit and wrong, and it is justifiably called out by internet culture. But it’s not the only type of conduct that is unacceptable. It’s easy to point out other people’s wrongs and to criticize their absurd behavior, especially when it’s trending. Subtle racial profiling and implicit prejudice may be quieter, but it is just as influential. Complicit silence is just as loud. As protests for the countless Black lives unlawfully lost to systemic racism and police violence continue to take over the streets across the country, claiming you are not racist is no longer sufficient. Our role as machines against injustice continues to evolve. And it’s more than likely that there exists a sliver of Karen in all of us that we must constantly keep in check. We must recognize our own entitled tendencies towards any race, class and gender. Social media platforms provide a space for users to share their views and to speak about societal observations, but now more than ever, it’s just as important to look inward. The Karen meme is an opportunity for introspection in offline discourse as well. So rather than debating its ulterior motives, it would be more productive to take this conversation to heart and to redress our own behaviors and subconscious impulses.

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.