The Karen I knew didn’t want to speak to a manager — unless it was the manager of getting high. We shared a school bus stop in 1984. I was a twelve-year-old high-school freshman (excuse me, first-year student) and she was a fifteen-year-old high-school junior… who didn’t even go to high school. It was more than a little disconcerting for me to consider, but Karen rode the bus with me to Dublin High School (now Dublin Coffman, 10/10 GreatSchools for “College Prep” but 4/10 for “Equity”) and then took another bus to the Tolles Technical Center in Plain City, Ohio. Tolles was the vocational-tech school run by the neighboring school district; since only about fifteen of Dublin’s 1200 students were on the “vo-tech” path, they double-bused over there every day.
Information on Karen was hard to get, particularly for a twelve-year-old. She would be there at the bus stop every morning when I arrived, despite the fact that the bus stop was literally in front of her house. She was bleach blonde, five foot six, just a little bit too much Appalachia in her face to be classically beautiful, with what looked like a perfect body covered by JC Penney clothing from ten years ago. She always had a cigarette in hand right up to the moment the bus arrived, at which point she would flick it onto the driveway behind her in a motion that was both careless and completely rehearsed. The rumor in our neighborhood was that she was going to Tolles so she could be a hairdresser. The idea that someone could pick a career at seventeen, and that the career in question could be cutting hair, frightened me in a way I couldn’t articulate.
I don’t recall ever speaking directly to her, nor she to me. The next year they added a bus stop closer to my house, which put paid to our daily coexistence, but in the years to come I would occasionally see Karen on a neighborhood street, behind the wheel of her old Datsun or in the passenger seat with some older, scary-looking dude, never the same one twice. An friend of mine who’d been in a few classes with her during freshman and sophomore years, before she left for Tolles, said she was an easy lay. I nodded knowingly, but we both understood that there was no definition of easy lay in the world that included the possibility of lanky, flat-broke kids on $169 BMX bikes.
What happened to Karen? Turns out she is still in Columbus, Ohio. Not cutting hair, but working an entry-level gig in pharma tech. Her LinkedIn profile photo leaves no doubt it’s the same person. Two marriages, two divorces, a couple of wage garnishments when she failed to pay her state taxes or various bills, a lawsuit from king-of-the-in-store-credit-card Synchrony Financial to which she offered no convincing defense. Still a bleach blonde, still looks a little dangerous to my sedate suburban eyes. Fifty-one years old. Hard to imagine.
It’s become popular lately to use “Karen” in a derogatory fashion. It’s the successor to “Becky”, which was the media’s first shot at creating a slur for white women along the lines of other slur names for women of other races. Why did “Karen” stick when “Becky” didn’t? And why is everyone using it? I doubt you will be surprised by the answer.
Asking the above question got the asker hounded off Twitter with over 100,000 responses, many of them unpleasant, causing her to delete the tweet. This was one of the non-harassing responses:
“Karen” was a term created *specifically by Black women* to talk about white women’s interpersonal + state violence against us and our communities: calling the police on us for getting coffee, threatening to have us fired, talking down to us at work (where we’re now “essential”).
— Afro-Latinx = Black. (@aliciasanchez) April 5, 2020
I appreciate Ms. Sanchez’s forthright response, but I think she’s accidentally carrying water for a group of people that is very much not Black women. A few months ago I suggested that most modern economic and social policies put in place since 1990 or thereabouts are meant to accomplish one of the following tasks:
a) lowered real wages through increased labor market participation and/or lowered demand for labor;
b) increased the value of fixed assets or investment instruments.
(I was taken to task for the misuse of the phrase “fixed assets” here, so feel free to substitute “tangible assets” there instead.) What fascinated me when I wrote that, and continues to fascinate me now, is how these two goals are so consistently served by such a disparate group of policies, regulations, and actions. It’s almost like I was able to somehow put on the infamous “They Live” sunglasses, right? And that’s what I consider my above-repeated suggestion: as a “lens” you can use to understand an action in government or business which seems to make no sense otherwise. Does it accomplish one of the two above tasks? Then that is probably why it exists, all propaganda to the contrary.
Let me suggest another “lens” to you which might be useful given various recent and current events: There is a lot of class warfare out there masquerading as social justice — and 98% of it involves “punching down”. Self-described socialist Nathan Robinson explains why, for example, the #CancelYale movement is doomed to failure:
…the Yale name has a great deal of meaning to students, faculty, and alumni. Around the world, the name signifies a specific institution they are proud to be part of. Renaming it would destroy a significant part of the institution’s cache. It would also deprive students and alumni of color of a marker of social prestige that they have worked hard to earn. Thus, while one of our principles should be that things named after slaveholders should be renamed, we have other principles as well, and sometimes a particular renaming would carry a significant downside versus a limited upside.
Emphasis mine. In other words: “It’s all well and good to pull down statues and rename institutions when the statues and institutions involved are primarily cherished by poor white trash — but this crusade will stop comfortably short of the door here at Yale, because we have other principles as well, and one of those principles is that America’s Illuminati must be spared from even the most minor inconvenience regardless of the cost in money or blood.”
This is such a naked statement of power that it boggles the mind to consider it head-on. In order to understand Yale’s position, you have to grasp the concept that it’s not okay to be a slave trader… unless your name appears on the diplomas of America’s ruling class. Then it’s totally okay! So what seems at first like a clear-cut case of social justice, namely Let’s stop honoring the people who profited from, or fought to preserve, the institution of slavery becomes in practice something like Let’s do that… as long as the people involved are associated with the lower or middle classes. Using this “lens”, it’s obvious to see why Amazon is deleting “The Dukes Of Hazzard” from its streaming services while continuing to show historical Yale football games via Prime. The former is low culture, the latter is high culture.
Once you recognize this pattern, you will see it all around you — including when it comes to the use of the name “Karen” to denote an unpleasant white woman. Why is it “Karen”? There are plenty of theories, many of which have something to do with a particular comedy skit or television interview, but I want to suggest that “Karen” is a class marker. It was popular with the middle-middle class during the Baby Boom, but by the time the Seventies rolled around it was well out of fashion. Now here’s the thing about baby names: they start with rich people and end up with poor ones, and that process takes about twenty years. So “Karen” was middle-class popular in 1950, when it was the #8 choice, and even more so in 1960, when it was the #4 choice, but by 1970 it was definitely a bit Not Our Kind, Dear. Consider, if you will, the names surrounding “Karen” on the Social Security Seventies Name Popularity Chart:
Imagine an after-work party with Christine, Tammy, Tracy, Karen, Dawn, and Tina attending. You already know this party is not taking place on a Manhattan rooftop, right? The name “Karen” had a socio-economic fall from grace in the Seventies, for sure.
(Aside: the top ten girls’ names in the just-completed decade were: Emma, Sophia, Olivia, Isabella, Ava, Mia, Abigail, Emily, Madison, and Charlotte. Which means that if I am lucky enough to live another thirty or so years I will eventually see those names drop down the socio-economic ladder to the point where the average strip club will have a cast of characters with names straight out of a Jane Austen novel.)
So here’s the bait-and-switch. The role played by “Karen” in our media was originally assigned to “Becky”, courtesy of a high-profile incident of crazy white behavior in which the caller was nicknamed “BBQ Becky”. It’s worth noting that Becky’s real name was Jennifer. Anyway, we saw a lot of Becky-this and Becky-that in the media, but it just didn’t catch on as a slur for white women. Why not?
The same Social Security data tells us why. The “Rebecca” popularity curve is a good twenty years behind the “Karen” curve. So today’s 40-something Beckys are considerably wealthier and better-employed than today’s 40-something Karens. Rebecca didn’t sink down the Social Security newborn ranks until the Nineties, when it was surrounded by the newly-declasse Alyssa, Courtney, Danielle, and Brianna.
“Becky” didn’t catch on because there were simply too many Beckys who still mattered in the same way that Yale still matters. Karen, on the other hand, is the General Lee car, which is to say that Karens have no economic or social clout. So a little media sleight-of-hand gets done in plain sight, and “BBQ Becky” becomes “Karen”. And a whole bunch of Twitter users think they made it up.
While leads us, yet again, to Winston Smith: “I understand HOW, but I do not understand WHY.” The WHY is simple. The goal of America’s ruling class is simple, and consistent with the goals its predecessors throughout history have always held: namely, to preserve its position at all costs. It does this by co-opting the anger pointed in its direction by the disenfranchised and redirecting that anger to the class below.
So: You have a legitimate gripe of some sort — in this case, it’s that various institutions appear designed to honor people who did your ancestors a grave disservice, or perhaps that you’ve witnessed acts of brutality which appear targeted at you and other people like you. Left to yourself, you’d no doubt end up pursuing a chain of causality all the way up to the people who benefit from these situations. Like all the legacy admissions who graduated from Yale Law School and moved effortlessly into positions of immense power and influence. Or the class of career politicians who trade on family and social connections to gerrymander elections in their permanent favor.
Naturally, the folks with whom you should probably be angry have no desire to be inconvenienced by your anger. So they use the media, including the social media, to redirect it. You will see this happen on a large scale in the upcoming Presidential election, in which you will be told that the best way to address the last fifty years of racial and social injustice will be to kick out a guy who first held office in 2016 and replace him with someone who joined the United States Senate all the way back in 1973.
Party affiliations and the merit of the individual candidates aside, this is precisely equivalent to suggesting that General Motors could fix all its problems by bringing Roger Smith back and reintroducing the Cadillac Cimarron. This is neither to praise Trump nor to bury him; merely to point out that pretty much everything which is currently agitating the hoi polloi has its roots in decisions taken between 1776 and 2016, not between 2016 and 2020. This protean ability of an elite establishment to convincingly sell itself as the “Candidate of change” is an outstanding example of how the truly powerful people in America manipulate public opinion with virtually zero expended effort.
Another redirection: taking people who are legitimately angry with America’s upper class — the fabled “one percent”, although it’s really more like the one percent of the one percent — and redirecting that anger to “Nazis” and “KKK people” and “Karens”, all of whom are in the lower class by default and who make outstanding, not to mention geographically convenient, punching bags. Sometimes literally. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey recently came out of his mansion and joined an anti-police protest march, conveniently forgetting that he is the actual boss of the police department. This is roughly equivalent to having a job at McDonald’s, having your manager tell you it’s okay to spit in the food, then seeing him walk outside around holding a sign saying “KILL THE FRY COOK WHO SPITS ON THE FOOD.”
I don’t consider myself qualified to answer the question of whether or not we have systemic racism in the United Stats, or to what degree it exists — but I am willing to bet a zillion dollars on the fact that said racism was not put into place by completely powerless blue-collar and dingy-collar bigots working minimum-wage jobs after high school. I’ll also take a flier here and suggest that the oppression of BIPOC (which I believe to be the current term as of June 2020; if you are reading this after the term changes to something else, please try to squelch your entirely natural and predictable reaction of attempting to fire me from my job, burn down my house, and murder my family) is the product of processes and attitudes put into place by tremendously powerful people, not by “Karen” the pharma tech in her blue-smoking 2003 Camry.
It seems odd, in retrospect, to think that Karen and I had most of our fates written well before we were old enough to have a say in the matter. I don’t know exactly what’s happened to her over the years; certainly my life has had any number of literally bloody twists and turns between 1984 and 2020. Yet in the end we both became about what we were meant to be. As a John, and as the child of relatively fussy middle-class parents, I wound up working a series of desk jobs at corporations. As a Karen, and as the child of people who let her smoke outside her house, she ended up earning $45k a year doing fairly menial work.
Like spring-steel forms which can be bent and twisted with abandon but will still return to the basic shape in which they were heat-treated the moment you release them, Karen and I are merely inhabiting the spaces we were always meant to inhabit. I don’t have any trouble grasping the fact that it was always going to turn out that way for her; it’s much harder to realize that it was always going to turn out this way for me, as well. That the Yale Law crowd and their power-by-proxy servants in the government had the game rigged all along, that Karen and I were never going to come close to the lives they take for granted. What if more people had that realization? America’s middle class stopped squabbling over race and religion and guns and abortion long enough to really think about the mechanisms which separate them from the class above? I don’t know exactly what would happen, but I’ll guarantee you this: damage to statues would be the least of it.