Karens are everywhere, notes a June 30 article in the Washington Post, and they are the most addictive thing to watch in America’s disastrous summer of 2020. For the uninitiated, a “Karen” is a pejorative term for a white woman who is “perceived to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is considered appropriate or necessary,” or who is using “her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others” or both. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Amy Cooper, the dog-walker who called the police on a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park, is a Karen. So is Patricia McCloskey, who brandished a handgun at Black Lives Matter protestors outside her home in St. Louis. And so is the anonymous mask-defiant female shopper in Dallas who jettisoned the contents of her grocery cart to the floor in protest.
This has become national entertainment. The Instagram account “Karens Going Wild by Pavel,” which shares especially egregious new Karen videos, has more than half a million followers. Misbehaving Karens featured on the account have been fired from their jobs for their racist, bigoted, or both racist and bigoted words and actions. People on my own Facebook feed are frequently re-sharing such videos, gleefully delighting in the absurdity and stupidity of individuals who perhaps would prefer not to have themselves and their worst moments recorded, their errant behaviors shared with millions of snickering, self-righteous Americans. That fact, I would argue, hints at the inherent problem with memes mocking Karens and their male counterparts, “Kens.”
Certainly, the Karen anecdotes I’ve seen or heard do not portray their victims favorably. Amy Cooper’s decision to call the police and fabricate an incident of a black man threatening her was sinister. The Dallas woman’s temper tantrum at the grocery store was childish and disrespectful. Sue Schafer, who (as I explained in a June 29 article in Crisis) covered her face in black makeup to mock a conservative television host in a poorly-conceived attempt at being “meta,” acted stupidly and irresponsibly. Yet what does it say about us, that we would so cravenly devour these memes and stories?
“Karen memes and jokes should be understood in this context, part of a long tradition to use humor to try to cope with the realities of white privilege and anti-blackness,” argued Washington Post Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah in an April 28 op-ed. On June 28, Attiah in a now-deleted tweet asserted: “White women are lucky that we are just calling them ‘Karen’s’. And not calling for revenge.” That’s a bit of an odd tack for someone who frequently bemoans the “cruel power” of “dehumanizing slurs.”
In truth, labeling members of a certain racial or gender group by some name—Karens, Kens, Kyles, Beckys, whatever—and ridiculing them for behavior supposedly stereotypical of that group is precisely dehumanizing and delegitimizing. It is to treat people as simplistic caricatures who cannot help but fulfill our unjust stereotypes of them. It evinces the opposite of empathy and charity by failing to consider people, however flawed and foolish they may be, as individuals with their own stories and suffering. And, as Attiah’s worrying comments suggest, they embody a desire for revenge against wrongs the ersatz villains may not have committed. (Is a petulant woman at a grocery store necessarily a racist?)
We may indulge in the mockery of Karens for any number of reasons. We may feel a rush of excitement witnessing the raw, immediate tension in the video. We may feel a self-congratulatory vindication that thankfully we’re not like those brainless bigots. Or we may delight in seeing a person who perhaps looks and talks like someone who once mistreated us get her just desserts. I’d imagine most Americans at one time or another have been contemptuously and perhaps unfairly lectured by a middle-aged white woman.
Yet, now, we are all Karens or Kens of one variety or another. Imagine how you might act if a large group of protestors—especially ones you might reasonably fear will attack or rob you—began raising a ruckus outside your home. Imagine how you might act if you suddenly discovered a neighbor casually allowing his dog to defecate in your yard, or a stranger flagrantly littering in your neighborhood park. Your outrage might be justified, but it might also be disproportionate, especially if you’d had a long day or seen such misbehavior countless times before. I doubt you’d want your reaction recorded and uploaded onto social media. All of us are capable of excessive, rash over-reaction, especially when the perceived offense involves something particularly sensitive.
The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “The fact that a human being possesses an eternal destiny imposes only one obligation: respect.” As Catholics, we are called to see people as individuals, created in the image of God, who are worthy of love and respect. “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are,” wrote Saint John Paul II in Centesimus annus. This is why Catholics for two millennia have so often fought for the dignity of the most marginalized groups: Roman slaves, indigenous peoples in the Americas, the unborn, the infirm, and the dying. “For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
Washington Post writer Hank Stuever acknowledges watching Karens or Kens can be “often unsettling—especially if you happened to be holding out any remaining shred of hope in the social fabric.” Indeed, Americans seem far too eager to record any contentious public interaction in the hopes of generating the next viral video. There’s little thought to the consequences of the public humiliation of a fellow citizen and human being. That the offending parties be tarnished with one of the ever-increasing woke slurs dished out by our fickle cancel culture is enough.
In his delightful Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines “bigot” as “one who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.” Tagging someone with a stereotypical pejorative is an easy way to decree someone decidedly other and beneath us. This, in a word, is un-Christian. It is the Christian’s calling to serve and love the other and the lowly, in part because in our sin, separated from Christ, we are the lowly other in need of grace and forgiveness. This is the beauty and majesty of the Incarnation—God becomes man, and in suffering the same indignities as we do, unites Himself to us and restores us to a place of honor. “I would like to put in a good word for Karen,” Matthew Walter offered in a thoughtful June 16 piece for The Week. I’ll do him one better: we are all Karens now.
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