It has finally happened; somebody I know and love was a called “Karen” by a white man in LA after she asked him to socially distance. ZOMG THE WHITE WOMAN STEPPING ON EVERYBODY’S NECKS HERE.
I don’t know who first used the name Karen to stand in for a white women drawing on white privilege, but it is clever, and when used among Black Americans, it has force and value, because it is a term coined in a culture that has specific meanings and relationships to the term.
And THAT is the problem with Karening. Black Americans using it to call out behavior that harms them is not the problem. The problem is that when the term moved into mainstream American culture, it became another cudgel to use on white women, and white men like cudgels. White Americans can’t leave anything Black people create alone, and when Karen moved into the mainstream, it changed its meaning.
White men are not subject to violence from Karens. White American male use of the term “Karen” calls on the alllllllllllllllll the cultural baggage that silences all women, including white women, objecting to and reporting to rape and intimate partner violence. When Black men talk about Karen, they are speaking to the legacy of white women calling out police or mobs to do violence to THEMSELVES. There is a universe of difference there, and it is one reason why white men maybe just shouldn’t goddamn go there.
The mainstream problems with Karen are particularly hard to grapple with. Every so often I have asked, and have seen other people ask, what is the male version of Karen? And I get answers. I’ve even given some answers. But none of them are very convincing. Because mainstream culture likes to punish women and it does not like to punish white men. (Black men are a whole different story.) White women should have to sit with Karen NOT because white men are telling them to, but because Black people are telling them to.
But it’s hard to accept that when white men are calling women who displease them “Karen” because they know it will hurt and discredit them. Then, the term really does become just a new form of “bitch.”
The choice isn’t taking away Karen use. The choice is for white people, particularly white dudes, to shut up with it. Condemning the term robs Black people of a useful and necessary term to confront real problems. Messing up the term by having white dudes take it up as a trendy word to say “bitch” de-emphasizes and obscures what Black people need the word to convey.
WUUUUUUUT all the woke white boys says? I’m using Karen to fight racism and white feminism which needs disciplining by ever-so-much-knowledgeable-about-emancipation me. Uh-huh. Oddly, I think you can call out white women abusing their privilege by telling them their behavior is uncool. “Hey don’t do that, it’s harmful.” Wow. That wasn’t that hard. Black people are overburdened by the work of educating white people on race; shorthand lingo makes sense there. I think it’s fair to expect white guys to do a little work.
So maybe this is a moment where white people maybe accept that this is a term that isn’t for them to use.