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“How does it feel to be named Karen?” My friends, colleagues and family members have all asked me this question, wondering if I am infuriated that my name is now a popular hashtag describing someone no one wants to be: an enraged white woman. “Karens” often gain infamy in videos capturing their untethered racist tirades – on the same day of George Floyd’s murder, for example, an aggressive “Karen” in Central Park, N.Y., was filmed calling the police about an innocent Black man who merely asked her to put a leash on her dog. The video went viral and public outrage escalated. This incident, in fact, led me to reflect on the origins of my own name.
My complicated relationship with my name began on the first day of kindergarten. I stood alongside my father as he spoke to my new teacher, a short white woman. He explained that my full name was pronounced in Punjabi as “Kirenjot," then he said it slowly: Ki-Rehn-Joth. “Kiren” (typically spelled Kiran) meaning the light in a ray of sunshine, and “jot,” the light in the flame of a candle – so, “double light.”
My father repeated my name, patiently waiting until she could say it correctly. After several tries, she became flustered and changed my name on the spot. My teacher decided that I would be Karen, immediately “correcting” the spelling on her roster. Then, in a self-satisfied, “I’ve-stamped-you-with-my-approval” way, she proceeded to teach my first class.
Growing up in a predominantly white coastal town in British Columbia, I learned that it was better to stay silent than to be the target of contempt. It was decided: I became “Karen.” I embraced the false shield of an identity that would supposedly help me blend in with my white classmates.
I was wrong. Like many children of immigrant families, my childhood was riddled with racist slurs despite being renamed.
Two memories stand out amongst many. I remember my white babysitters offering me a piece of bubble gum, only to find that the wrapper contained dog feces. They laughed as they held it out, thinking I would take the bait. I didn’t. When I was four years old, our house was torched by racists. Luckily for us, my mother smelled the smoke wafting up the stairs and got us out through the back porch to watch everything we owned go up in smoke. When we sifted through the embers of our demolished home the next day, what stung more than the choking smoke was the question: “How could someone put a can of gasoline in our mailbox and light a match?”
The smell of smoke – smoke that blocks out truth and racist violence – still triggers a deep sadness in my soul.
As Canadians, we often pride ourselves on being much more tolerant than the United States; that we’re a country infused with multicultural ideals. Yet this pride derives from selective historical accounts. While Canada did not participate in slavery to the same extent as our U.S. neighbours, genocide against Indigenous peoples and injustices against minorities is a painful, continuing part of Canada’s history. The #MeToo movements and George Floyd protests are recent examples of communities reclaiming their voices, renarrating collective memories. Quieter and more covert acts of racism in Canada remain more difficult to unearth, yet are no less traumatic or destructive.
My kindergarten teacher was my first – but certainly not my only – encounter with a “Karen” before the meme was invented. She used her power to dictate my place in the world. Speaking up against those in power was inconceivable. Speaking out now is my privilege – a privilege many still do not possess and are unable to do for fear of retribution.
When my birth name was first supplanted, Karen was a fly-under-the-radar kind of name. Now that “Karen” is linked in charged ways to the continuing oppression of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour), the name itself has become a symbol for rallying people to confront this oppression.
If the label “Karen” targets the symptoms but not the underlying problems of structural racism and inequality, maybe some of the more moderate Karens will fear being called out. These Karens may retreat, but how will this bring us closer to examining racial injustices? How do we make sure that “Karen” is not only a meme for naming and shaming? We have to be careful not to pathologize or dismiss all “Karens,” perpetuating a two-sided game that reduces people to caricatures.
Is there a bridge to these “Karens,” a way they can help construct a postracial society?
If real change is to be achieved, we need to bring a significant portion of the population along. Changes in corporate messaging and more diverse boards are certainly helpful steps toward equity and fairness, but more is both needed and possible. As growing numbers of people recognize the Black Lives Matter movement, it is past time to recognize human dignity alongside human rights.
Being named Karen has better prepared me to figure out how to work with these contemporary “Karens.” It has not been easy. Yet, acquiring a thick skin has not always been in my best interest. Rather, I am learning how to reach other “Karens,” to find spaces for constructive conversation. As someone on whom the name Karen was imposed, I have learned to embrace its complexities, and even its paradoxes.
After our house burned down, I watched my parents build another house in the same location. Their resilience and hope in humanity was powerful and unwavering. It has shown me that change and transformation is always possible, and that one must never give up on the “Karens.”
Karenjot “Karen” Bhangoo Randhawa lives in California, and teaches at UC Berkeley.