It Takes a Nation of Karens to Hold Us Back
It’s a video we’re familiar with by now: a presumptuous white woman lording it over someone who is black. Or, in some newer variations, brown.
“Lording” is the word we came up with when looking for a verb: Lord of the manor. I own this joint. I own this situation. I own you. Fact of life. Deal with it.
It’s the woman we were talking about the moment before we started talking about George Floyd, the woman in Central Park. It’s the woman we’ve seen many times since, so frequently that there are multiple “Karens Gone Wild” accounts on Twitter, collecting examples.
The guys we’ve seen, well, they’re usually police, fully dehumanized — and dehumanizing — in their riot gear. The women need no such protection. They’re capable of complete dehumanization in their street clothes.
“Is this your property?” asks Karen.
It’s a loaded question. You can hear it in the tone of her voice, but you can really see the ugliness of it — of her — in her face. She feints at civility, but everything about her screams I am the power here.
“Hi,” Karen continues. “I’m asking you if this is your property.”
We’re on a nice residential street in San Francisco. It’s a nice spring day. Sun’s out. Leaves are green.
“Why are you asking?” says the man recording the moment on his mobile phone, the man through whose eyes we’re watching this. The man is black. We don’t see this. We don’t see him. We only see what he is seeing. We only see the white woman looking at him. At us.
“Because it’s private property.” Another voice. The camera turns — our head turns — and there’s a white man with the white woman, standing aside and back a bit. Karen’s husband. He’s there, in the background, but he’s not really part of the picture. It’s Karen’s show.
Because it’s private property. They’re pointedly asking the black man standing in front of the nice house on the nice street whether he owns it. They’re asking him because they’re confident he doesn’t.
How could he? He’s black.
We’re black. We’re the man holding the camera. If this weren’t real, it would be a good lesson in POV filmmaking.
We’re black, and we’re alone, on the nice street in the nice neighborhood on the nice day. It’s a private moment, just them and us. And with nobody else watching, even with the camera running, they’re being themselves, who they really are when they don’t have to be polite about it.
We’re seeing what the man holding the camera sees all the time. Only we’re white, so we haven’t seen much of it in our life. We’ve heard stories, more than a few, but the stories don’t capture the visceral nature of Karen standing there, in the moment, Lord of all she surveys, asking whether we own the property behind us, because that would be not just unlikely, but impossible. Not in Karen’s world. Not in this world.
“So,” says Karen’s husband — they’re starting to repeat each other, overlapping, like a chorus — “are you defacing private property?”
Karen’s husband is also holding a camera, which is why he’s standing aside and back a bit. He’s getting her in the shot, the shot with the black man in front of private property, the property that clearly cannot be his, not on that nice street in that nice neighborhood. Karen isn’t just being Karen, she’s performing Karen. She’s gonna be famous, the Karen who exposed the truth behind all the Karen videos, Defender of All Karens.
“You’re free to express your opinion,” says the white man with the camera. “But not on people’s property.” Well, that’s mighty white of him. You, a black man who can’t possibly own this property under the laws of the known universe, can take your opinion elsewhere. This is San Francisco, after all. We’re nice here.
By the way, we’re just fifteen seconds into the video. It’s that stunning. It’s that loaded.
There’s another minute-fifteen as the moment unfolds, their certainty that the black man cannot possibly own the property undisturbed, and then Lisa & Robert — we’ve learned their names — walk away. “And that is why,” says the man as he turns his camera toward the property, “Black Lives Matter”.
And there they are, the words, those words, freshly stenciled in yellow on the retaining wall in front of the house. His house. The house he owns, in the nice neighborhood on the nice street.
When we were growing up, the face of racism was Archie Bunker. There were many faces, but that was the one we saw every week, the lovable bigot in Queens. A few years later, the enduring description of racists would be delivered by Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles:
“These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know… morons.”
The face of racism grew into that word in the decades that followed: rednecks, White Power Nazis, manifest idiots, morons all. It became easy for people — white people — to say they weren’t racist, they couldn’t be racist, because they didn’t think like that, they didn’t look like that. The caricature of racism became racism itself, making it easy for nice white people to politely sidestep it.
Karens don’t look like that.
Some Karens are gaudy caricatures in their own right, but there’s nothing cartoonish about this Karen. This Karen is the face of racism that appeared shortly before we were born and disappeared in our lifetime, the young white woman hissing at Elizabeth Eckford as she entered Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
The spittle is gone, but the attitude remains, if not the popular caricature of white supremacy, certainly the implicit reality of it, the certainty that a black man can’t possibly own a nice home on a nice street in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco, the depressingly familiar attitude once explained by Carol Moseley Braun to her white acquaintance:
“It doesn’t matter how big you get, you’re still a nigger.”
As it happens, Hazel Bryan Massery, the hissing white woman of Little Rock, recanted and apologized within a few years of the once-iconic incident. Karens — and the rest of us white folk — aren’t beyond redemption. But we’re never gonna find it if we keep pretending the problem isn’t there to begin with.