Is Naming a ‘Karen’ Stereotyping?
I think about how much I enjoyed – actually enjoyed – hearing about the newly defined Karen ‘profile.’ It gave form to all the bits of behavior that people of color have long recognized and experienced as hostile. And now, there it is – a word and an image – a shorthand for a ubiquitous phenomenon.
But, wait a minute! Why is it okay to talk about Karens when the world is struggling to eliminate stereotypes?
From the minute we are born, our families and our cultures tell us about the world around us. Here is what is safe and what is not. Look both ways. Telling lies is bad. We also learn from our own experiences. If we are raised in a family with attentive moms, aunts and grandmas, we develop a stereotype for what women are like. If we are born into a military family, we trust uniforms and people who use the word, “sir!”
We don’t have to start from scratch with everyone we meet. We learn. We notice patterns in our environment and learn from them. In nature it might be “red sky at night …..” In communities the warning might be to use care when you notice “this” behavior. Identifying and sharing these patterns can prevent pain and even save our lives. “We” need to stick together to be safe.
So, back to my question about stereotyping. The dictionary tells us “a stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” The Karen concept certainly doesn’t fit that definition because it presents a complex and nuanced perspective on a combination of factors. Karen wasn’t a Karen because of how she looked. To earn the label, she had to also behave in certain ways. People of color have zeroed in on those subtle give-away actions alerting them when risk is high. Red sky!! Forewarned is forearmed.
I celebrate how this new phrase has helped me see what has been true for people of color for a long time. We all need to see hurtful patterns. I propose that the Karens of the world are working from true stereotypes – oversimplified expectations based on a single feature – blackness – exacerbated by a sense of class entitlement. She didn’t choose to get there; she was unaware of how she had been set up by cultural stereotypes. Many of these same people, when presented with the pattern, come to see how hurtful it is – and they are working to change. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.”
Former U.S. Attorney and judge, Carol Lam, a woman of Asian descent, once said, “ When I walked through that door I would think, “I know what you are thinking about me and by the time we leave this room you are going to be thinking something else.”
One more timely quote by Mark Twain, “A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.”