At this point, unless you live under a rock, I am sure you have heard the term “Karen” used to describe a certain type of white woman. But just in case…
“Karen is a pejorative term used in the US and other English speaking countries for a woman perceived to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is considered appropriate or necessary.”
We’ve all seen the videos of various “states of Karen,” and there’s pretty much a Karen for every occasion: BBQ Karen; Central Park Dog Walking Karen; Neighbor Karen; Lemonade Stand Karen; and who could forget the “Pistol Packing Karen” from St Louis who pulled a gun on peaceful protesters? Like most of my white friends I would like to think I have absolutely zero in common with Karen, who usually manifests as a privileged, rude racist, and more often than not with a bad hairstyle. However, the brutal truth is, not only have I too sported some bad hairstyles over the years, there are more than a few times that I have behaved like Karen.
I am not new to the BLM movement. I have been a supporter since the Eric Garner case here in NYC. After the Garner murder, we took to the streets to protest the NYPD and the fact that they had not charged (something they still have not done) or fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo for murdering Eric Garner for the horrendous act of selling loose cigarettes back in 2014. Since then I have marched with Black Lives Matter many times here in NY as well as DC, Charlottesville (after the murder of Heather Heyer), and in Philadelphia during the 2016 DNC. I’ve been to meet-ups, I’ve donated money, and I’ve advocated wherever and whenever possible. I have always thought of myself as an ally of the movement, but lately I have really been examining what that means and what else I can learn about my own privilege.
A lot of white people don’t understand the word “privilege.” They think it means that we have never suffered, that we have never been poor or haven’t had to work hard for what we have. Privilege is none of those things. Nobody is trying to say that to be white means we have never endured hardships or been treated unfairly. Those are human experiences that we have all had at one point or another. Privilege, quite simply, is the luxury of not having people make assumptions or judge you purely based on the color of your skin. For instance, I’ve never been followed in a store, been pulled over for no reason, had someone say to me that I’m “pretty for a white girl,” or tell me that I don’t “sound white.” I’ve also never had anyone assume that I am a criminal, or that I’ve been to jail (even though I was, and I have). To be white in this country is to be the race that every other race is measured by.
There are so many ways in which we display racism, and it’s not always blatant. I have met many whites who consider themselves to be superior, the “true Americans,” because the Founding Fathers were white. But it cannot be argued that this country was built by and on the backs of Black people, stolen from their homeland, who had no choice in the matter. During slavery, Black women often had their babies ripped from their bosoms right after birth, and then forced to breastfeed their master’s children—the same “masters” who abused and routinely raped them. There was absolutely no room for Black autonomy, let alone Black families, and this really was not that long ago. I listen to white friends talk about their lineage all of the time, and how important it is to them. Imagine having none. Imagine having your entire history stolen, without any compassion shown to you, and then being told, “Get over it.”
So much of this country was built by Black people: the Capitol; a good portion of the railroads; the Smithsonian; Trinity Church in NYC; Faneuil Hall; Fort Sumter; Harvard; Georgetown; Wall Street; and of course, the Whitehouse. You don’t get anymore “Americana” than those structures, yet so often we hear, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to Africa?” How dare we? Americans take so much pride in those things listed above, yet our white hands weren’t even the ones that put the blood, sweat and tears into building them.
I recently started to read “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi, and while I’m only a couple of chapters in, it’s like a huge light bulb is flickering inside my head. If we are truly going to progress past racism in this country, we really need to redefine our ideas of what it means to be an American. We also need to examine the ways in which we interact with people, and how we perceive them to be.
The first thing that a white person “knows” about a Black person is that they are Black. Yeah, I know, what a brilliant observation; but what does that really mean? Most of the time it means that we are bringing all of our preconceived notions, our prejudices, and maybe even our own individual experiences, and dropping them at the feet of this one person whom we have only just met. If they are not “who we believe them to be,” the onus is on them to prove us wrong. How often have you listened to a bigot try to explain away their racism, or justify it by saying something like, “I don’t like Black people because I once got beaten up by a Black person?” We all know that judging many for the acts of one is wrong, yet so many of us secretly, even unintentionally, do it anyway.
I can’t even imagine how it feels to walk out of my door every morning with the weight of an entire race on my shoulders, or to constantly have someone tell me that I am “the exception, not the rule.” It must be physically exhausting to constantly have to prove who you are as a human being. People will often say that words don’t matter, but I disagree. Words do matter. Not only do our actions need to change, our language needs to be retuned and discussions reframed if we truly are serious about change.
There are studies that show the stress of being Black in America literally takes years off of people’s lives. As a white person, I have never had to live with that kind of stress, and privilege is living in a country that doesn’t require me to. People judge me based on the person that I am, and if there are assumptions made about me, they usually go in my favor.
Recently I found myself commenting on a friend’s Facebook post that I had no business commenting on. It was a discussion about “colorism,” and I was interjecting with a story that my (Black) friend had told me years ago. I was immediately and rightfully admonished, as I should have been. I thought that by sharing my friend’s experience I was adding to the conversation; but the truth is, it was not my experience, and it certainly was not my place to comment. We white people have this notion that our ideas of what racism is or isn’t are important. They’re not. When discussing inequities in any situation we should be quieting our voices and listening to the oppressed, not to those who benefit from the oppression.
The first step is acknowledging and not giving in to our inner Karens when they rear their ugly heads. It means that we have to do some hard work and a whole lot of self-examination. We have to open our eyes, but more importantly our ears, and listen to voices of Color. So many times I have found myself wanting to “whitesplain” my actions (“But I am NOT like that!”); but if I am being honest, that is one of the most Karen things one can do. It’s making the dialog about me, and how I am perceived, rather than the issue at hand. I have 100% been guilty of this, and it is not an easy thing to recognize or correct. We all want to feel like we are being heard. We also want to try to separate ourselves from racism. But the truth of the matter is, we will never be able to eradicate racism until we recognize it, in all its forms, within ourselves.
Author: Cynthia Tarana is a heavily tattooed Ex-Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She currently lives on Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes, likes to drink, rage against the machine and shop at the GAP.