Teen son: Mom, why are you being mean to the appliance salesman?
Mom: Because I need him to get me what I asked for and he isn’t doing it.
Teen Son: You are being a Karen.
This week I encountered two different white teenage boys tell me disparaging stories about a white woman standing up for herself. They called her Karen in a critical and superior tone. I felt a wave of anger and anxiety. Do we want to raise another generation of men who feel entitled to keep women quiet?
I looked up the background of this term that has spread wide in the culture of the USA. Kansas State University professor Heather Woods, said a Karen’s defining characteristics include, “entitlement, selfishness, and a desire to complain… (someone who is) willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.” The stereotype includes that a Karen will demand to “speak to the manager”. Rachel Lewis writes that a Karen, “sees no one as an individual, instead moving through the world prepared to fight faceless conglomerates of lesser-than people who won’t give her what she wants and feels she deserves…”
By the definitions stated above, these are aggressive behaviors. In my book, Communication Breakthrough*, I explore the difference between assertive, aggressive and passive behavior and include a quiz to test where you are on that spectrum. Aggressive behavior involves going after your goal, regardless of other people's rights. Your goal overrides your respect for people. Assertive behavior involves standing up for yourself, seeking your goal, while weighing the rights of other people. Passive behavior elevates your care for people above your personal goals.
Here is what bothers me. The name Karen is being used to criticize any white woman who is assertive. The two teenage boys were disparaging women for being assertive, not for being aggressive. They do not know the difference because of a stereotype. Once we create a stereotype, we exaggerate, expand the meaning and lose the individual. This is the birth of prejudice. This new version of silencing women makes alarm bells go off in my ears. Old stereotypes are reinforced. Men who speak up are assertive, while women who speak up are bitches. Assertive men are admired, while assertive women are shrill.
Still there is good news for the image of Karen rising in prominence, but only in this one area. Christopher Cooper, the black birder who had the cops called on him by a white woman (Amy) in the park wrote, “her inner Karen emerged and took a dark turn”. He used the name that has become slang for an entitled white woman.
Hers was aggressive behavior, because she is after her goal at the expense of another’s civil rights. What is good about this narrow use of the term is that it calls out and names something bad, in this case entitled white women in the USA using their privilege to racially profile black people. The woman knows that cops will be sympathetic to her and suspicious of the black bird watcher. Naming a bad behavior highlights it in a way that the larger society begins to see it as a problem to combat. The behavior of an aggressive racist woman is called out and condemned, which contributes to racial justice.
However, from a sociological point of view, once we pick a term to call out bad behavior, that term can also be used to label many people who do not fit the original profile. This can diminish efforts to listen, to understand, to find justice and peace.
A 13 year-old boy picks up the term that everyone is using and uses it against his mother. It may be too late to put that genie back in the bottle, but I have this to say:
When women are assertive and stand up for themselves, that is not being a Karen.
Feminism is about promoting the equality of men and women.
The Karen slur is a woman-hating, sexist term. If you are annoyed by a woman who speaks up, you can now call her Karen. This is misogynistic. I don’t want women to be cowered, to shrink from speaking up because they are afraid of name-calling.
Racism and Sexism are two evils that need to be combated in this society. I take a lesson from Chris Cooper, who insisted on calmly filming his assailant Amy, “despite her threats”. He said, “I didn’t want to kowtow to that, I didn’t want to give it any power. I am pretty adamant about not being a participant in my own dehumanization.”
I took a walk with one of those teen boys and I talked until he listened to my lesson on Feminism. I will not give boys and men the power to shut me up. If I get aggressive and demean others, do call me on that. But if I am speaking respectfully, as I insist on having my needs heard, that is assertive. I will not be silenced. I will not be dehumanized by a sexist slur.
How Using Brain Science and Listening to Body Cues Can Transform Your Relationships
ISBN 9780996324953 Available at Amazon