Ya’ll know I stay thirsty for some shit like this, don’t cha?
By now, we’ve all seen countless Karen memes and videos of white women bathing in their privilege by interrupting the lives of people minding their business. Karen is the white woman who prioritizes herself, her feelings and issues by disregarding the rights, privileges and feelings of others (mainly Black folks). In other words, Karen is a white woman who “feels” mildly inconvenienced (I did say feel). If you haven’t, here are some examples.
In this video, Tiffany Bolling drops by her sister’s apartment to wish her happy birthday. Mind you, we are in the middle of a fucking pandemic, so Tiffany sings happy birthday to her sister at her sister’s doorstep while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Karen (unnamed white woman) complains that they are disturbing her by making her dog bark and asks them to “quiet down a little bit.” Karen bought the dog. It is Karen’s dog. No, I am not making this up. Oh, and let the record reflect that Karen’s dog was barking before Tiffany even opened her mouth.
In this example, Karen attacks a motorist and their vehicle because they stopped their vehicle in the middle of a crosswalk at a red light. I guess Karen felt it was too inconvenient to walk/jog behind the car. Karen tops her raging performance off with a classic “white girl” scream.
Let us also not forget Karen who called the police on a group of Black men renting out an Airbnb because she felt they “didn’t belong.” When they refused to respond how Karen wanted them to, she yelled, “shut the fuck up…I’ll go get my gun fucking assholes.”
But these incidents are not new. This goes as far back as “Barbecue Becky” and “Permit Patty.” We have only recently decided on a stereotype that fully encapsulates the characteristics of the privileged behavior of white women. Say it with me, Karen.
While Karen is funny as hell to watch, I want to point at the privileged intersection in which she exists in society.
Privileged intersection of race and gender
Black Feminist Legal Scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1990) theorized Intersectionality as a framework to point out how antidiscrimination laws and the legal system maintained a single axis framework to address problems of race and gender. For example, in antisexist policies and feminist theory the prime focus is sex, and in antiracist politics the sole focus is race. The scholar’s research questioned what happens to Black women and other women of color whose identities intersect both. Crenshaw stated,
Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things” (Women Transforming Cities International Society, 2018, para. 3).”
Thus, Crenshaw (1991) defined intersectionality as where the structures of race, gender and class intersect and exert distinct and complex acts of oppression on women of color.
While Crenshaw’s Intersectionality theory was created as a framework to talk about the various ways women of color were oppressed at the intersections of race, class and gender, it developed as a way to discuss and understand the multiple ways we makeup identity. In other words, people possess complex identities that are not unilateral and broad stroking.
Crenshaw provided a new way for us to think about who we are. Even though collectively a group of people may be Black, they are not all the same. Their identities may differ at intersections or race, class and gender.
I want to flip Crenshaw’s framework of Intersectionality, not to look at the multiple oppressions of Black women, but to look at the privileged intersections or race and gender in white women. Remember, Crenshaw said Intersectionality is a way to see where “power comes and collides.”
Karen is a white woman who understands and acknowledges the privilege of being White and a woman affords her. It is at this intersection where Karen is prioritized and feels the need to insert herself. She uses this privilege to assert herself over others. She uses it to get what she wants. Karen understands that society values her above Black women, and Karen understands that as a white woman, in particular, she is always seen and acknowledged as a victim in need of protection- especially from “a predatory Black man.” So, when she is mildly inconvenienced, she uses this to her advantage. Karen knows that the police will believe her. Karen knows that society will see her as a harmless and fragile white woman who is powerless in the face of an “aggressor.” Karen walks through the world with the distinct privilege of these colliding identities – precisely because she’s never had to feel them oppressing her.
The Karen memes and videos do more than just poke fun at privileged white women, it provides a particular moment for us to see white women’s aggression. It breaks away from the historical fallacy of the fragile and harmless white woman that society begs us to believe.
Back in the day, White women knew to cry rape when it was discovered that they were having romantic relations with Black men. Why is that? It is because white women understood the privileged axis in which they exist. Think back to the story of Willie McGee of Laurel, Mississippi. In 1951, McGee was electrocuted for allegedly raping a white housewife he worked for named Willetta Hawkins. The two were involved in an extra-marital affair that everyone in the town knew about. Yet, when Willetta’s husband discovered the affair, she cried rape. Again, why is that?
Do we ever talk about the violence of white women? No forreal, do we ever talk white women as aggressors, their part in maintaining systematic racism and sexism?
While she is funny, don’t forget that Karen is the aggressor
We acknowledge Karen as a stereotype and meme because it calls us to see the violence and danger of white women. It shows how white women “simultaneously and systematically oppress Black folks in particular by weaponizing their privilege” (Nichole Smith, 2020). Karen is the aggressor, and she is violent. Karen will aggravate a situation that has absolutely nothing to do with her ass, no effect on her or her livelihood, and then pretend that she is the victim. Karen will make it and what everyone else is doing about her. The Karen memes and videos means we must see and acknowledge that. Karen’s white ass ain’t harmless, she is harmful!
Stereotypes. How does it feel Karen?
Stereotypes help judge information about people’s behavior, age, sex, race, their jobs or how they communicate (Blair, 2002; Kunda & Thagard, 1996). People create stereotypes to move throughout the world, point out differences and to fit in. While stereotypes help us to generalize, they prevent us from seeing people individually and uniquely.
So, stereotypes help us to misunderstand and misjudge people more than they help us to understand them.
Be honest, the only time you think of the word stereotype is when we talk about the limited and tropish portrayal of Black people that illustrate us as criminals, sexualized deviants, or moral and economic failures. We don’t even have the range that Karen has to act an ass. This is because we really only talk about stereotypes in relation to Black folks and other people of color. You think differently of a Black girl named Jessica than one that is named Frenshea. You think differently of a Black man with tattoos than a white man with tattoos. Doncha’ Karen?
Of courseee, not every white woman is what we identify as a “Karen.” It is really not about showcasing white women in a bad light. Black folks have never been into shit like that. “Karen” is simply forcing white women to finally see and acknowledge their privilege, because they love to act oppressed but never want to acknowledge how they are oppressors. No, Karen is a stereotype that enables us to see the privileged white women in all her horrific glory. For the first time, this stereotype isn’t inaccurate. This stereotype is pointing out something that exists within all white women- privilege.
This stereotype is calling white women to see their privilege. For far too long white women have been able to stand in the shadow of “not me.” White women have been able to demonstrate that they aren’t racist because they don’t exude a certain type of behavior.
“Karen” forces white women to say, out loud, that they operate within a matrix that privileges them over Black men and women. So nawl, you may not “act” like a Karen, but do you at least acknowledge that you are privileged just like her?
How does it feel be judged even before you walk into a room? How does it feel to “look like a Karen” when you are simply wearing a protective hair style? How does it feel to be made ashamed of who you are, to have to minimize and caution how you move throughout the world because you don’t want to give society another reason to demonize your people?
How would you feel, Karen, if people weaponized this stereotypes to justify assault and mistreatment of all white women? How would you feel if this stereotype demanded that people see you as incompetent and inherently inferior?
I hope “Karen” provides a glimpse into the many ways minority women have to navigate and live above stereotypes. It is also my hope that “Karen” helps all white women to acknowledge the power they have in perpetuating them.
Modern day whiteness
It is important to talk about Karen, because she didn’t just emerge in contemporary society. The only thing different now is that we have social media. Karen’s ass been here all along. Karen is simply a modern-day example of whiteness- of racism. This liberal version of racism acknowledges that racism exists. They can tell you the textbook definition of racism, yet they deny the context of how these defining containers create social inequality; and they especially deny how they contribute and benefit from it.