I was asked recently by a friend to provide a few bits of life advice for her teenage nieces, and I said a bunch of things about being true to yourself and not worrying about being a bit weird. But if I were asked to give general advice to young women now, I’d say this: Girls, don’t let your mothers turn into Karens.
A Karen, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a middle-aged white woman who sails through life on a current of good fortune, pointedly unaware of the ways that her whiteness smooths the waters around her. If you told her, she’d be stunned, because she sees herself as a victim. She is a victim, which is why she’d like to speak to the manager, please. Her time is very important. She would like the police to come, quickly, because she’s seen some people she doesn’t recognize and they won’t listen to her and she just has a funny feeling about them.
She probably also views her phone as a useful tool for playing Candy Crush, for counting her steps and sending funny GIFs to her children. Of course, it’s also useful for calling the police on black people who happen to be barbecuing, babysitting, swimming at a public pool, shopping or doing yoga. It’s useful for calling the cops on an Indigenous man who wants to open a bank account for his granddaughter. If you ask Karen, her phone is her friend. If she doesn’t see that it’s also potentially a lethal weapon, that’s not surprising. She doesn’t see a lot of things.
The latest sighting of a greater-privileged Karen occurred this week in New York’s Central Park. There, a white woman named Amy Cooper was asked by a bird watcher, a black man named Christian Cooper, to put her dog on a leash, as regulations required. She refused, and Mr. Cooper was about to give the dog a treat, so that its owner would put the leash on. That’s when Mr. Cooper began filming the interaction with his phone, according to his Facebook post, “and when her inner Karen fully emerged and took a dark turn.”
You may have seen the video: Ms. Cooper calls 911, telling the dispatcher there’s “a man, African-American, he has a bike helmet, he is recording me, and threatening me and my dog.” At the end of the call, her voice rising in near-panic (though Mr. Cooper is not threatening her in any way): “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately.”
The possibility that she could have had Mr. Cooper killed is not theoretical. In Minneapolis, on the same day, George Floyd died with the knee of a police officer on his neck, the latest in a long line of black men and boys who have met violent deaths at the hands of police. Fortunately, Mr. Cooper was able to walk away with his life and health intact. Ms. Cooper walked away to find a storm of outrage, her dog taken away and her job terminated. Mr. Cooper, who is a better and more empathetic person than I would have been in his shoes, later told The New York Times: “I’m not excusing the racism. But I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart.”
It occurred to me, as I read Mr. Cooper’s statement, that the burden of generosity shouldn’t have to fall on him. The burden of trauma already falls on black and Indigenous people in Canada and the United States, as they have difficult conversations with their children about negotiating public spaces that can be lethal. Instead, we should be having those conversations – and by “we,” I mean would-be Karens, daughters of Karens, friends of Karens. As the always-wise Janelle Monae put it, “I’m tired of us having to do the work you should be doing.”
Short of confiscating her phone, how do you solve a problem such as Karen? (Here I feel the need to apologize to all the good Karens out there.) First, by pointing out that ignorance is no defence. At this point, only a sensory-deprived blockhead does not know that dangerous racial disparities exist in our society, and that racialized communities are overpoliced and oversurveilled – and they don’t need a white lady narcing on them because she feels “uncomfortable.” Start a conversation with the would-be Karen in your life. Point out to her that her ingrained ideas about who belongs where and at what time are not immutable truths handed down from the cosmos, but instead are belief systems shaped by history, bias and psychological blind spots. Slip her a reading list. Send her a podcast. Tell her what you really think between the second and third glasses of rosé.
Second, point out to your Karen that calling the police and falsely claiming to feel threatened by someone’s s’mores demeans the actual violence suffered by so many women. That actual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by partners or people known to the victim, not some random stranger trying to go for a swim or watch birds. Third, point out that women, historically the victims of systemic oppression, should be much better allies to people who labour under similar oppression. And then if that all fails, and Karen still wants to Karen, run away with her SIM card. If you can’t change her thinking, you might still be able to save a life.
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