A few weeks ago, I wrote about concerns with Karens,
as well as concerns with my own use of the word “Karens” (noun) instead of karen-ing (verb).
I’ve been thinking about karen-ing a lot the last week or two:
What does it mean to karen?
Who is most likely, based on societal structures today,
to feel empowered to karen in public?
Do I karen? If so,
How do I adjust my life in ways that help me
While the process of discovery as I’ve experienced it isn’t as linear as the nature of English and blogging may make it sound, the process really did begin with one question above all:
“What does it mean to karen?” What’s the definition as I’d write it?
To come to that definition, I had to first answer a different question:
Apart from the fact they’d been perpetrated by white women, what did all the acts of karening I’d witnessed on social media have in common?
In each case, a white woman felt subjectively threatened by the skin color and/or non-aggressive acts of a Black person, and then acted out that sense of threat in ways that increased possibility of harm to the Black person.
Thanks to author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I had words for what was happening in these moments of karening:
a transference of skin in the game.
To “karen,” I decided, is to take acts that decrease one’s anxiety—to increase one’s subjective sense of well being—by transferring (or attempting to transfer) objective risks and costs to someone else.
In the birder-as-karening-target example I referenced in “safer,” here’s a rough translation of how this worked:
- A Black birder politely asked a nearby dog owner to place her dog on a leash, as required by regulation and as posted.
- Perceiving threat in the very audacity that someone—a Black someone, no less!—could ask her to comply with regulations, she declined.
- The birder began recording the exchange on his cell phone.
- Her sense of anxiety suddenly increased, she pushed even harder to force him to change his behavior for her own comfort. She threatened to call the police, being very explicit about what she meant by that: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”
- If he wouldn’t change his behavior to make her more comfortable? Well, then, she could–and did–call the police for back-up, stating, “There’s a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet. He is recording me and threatening me and my dog.”
Unlike countless daily acts of karening experienced by foisted upon Black and brown-skinned folks daily in the United States, this act of karening was incredibly explicitly race-responsive:
The karener’s actions and their racial animus were expressed, crystal clear, in words.
Thanks to this very public incident, I had both a a compelling example of karening and a working definition for it.
Unfortunately, the working definition soon made something altogether too clear:
I karen on the daily.
Last Friday, I woke up pretty deep in active PTSD, though—due to, thanks to mechanisms for coping with PTSD, still being in the process of learning to recognize and name different feelings—I didn’t recognize it until I’d karened allll over my kids an hour or two after awakening.
In retrospect, it was easy to see the first warning sign that I was not in a good place. When my older son, Li’l D, awakened to join me on the couch, I literally thought, Oh, no! Go back to bed! I’m not ready for this part of the day!
Instead of acknowledging to myself that I was not in a good place, I looked for an outlet to ease my anxiety. When Li’l D proposed baking some keto treats, I seized it: Yes! Cooking is calming! Let’s do that!
I was not yet clear that cooking is not always calming.
My second warning sign came a couple minutes later. Awkwardly dancing around my kids in our too-small kitchen, I hollered that they needed to stay out of my way: How was I supposed to get anything done in this environment?!
I won’t enumerate the many other warning signs I later identified before I ultimately threw a three-year-old worthy tantrum in front of both my kids and my husband, doing so in a way that shamed my kids instead of reflecting fully acceptance of my responsibility for my own choices and reactions.
Fortunately, with lots and lots of shame readings under my belt, I asked for a few minutes to myself to reflect. I washed dishes and thought about all the many warning signs I’d ignored that I needed to take extra care with my own damn self that day.
As I washed, I wondered what I’d do differently, had I the chance, and what I could do differently in the future to reduce the likelihood of my karening all over the people I love most. Or anyone, really.
After a few minutes, I brought my family together in the living room. I apologized for tantruming, and for shaming them by many of my acts in the kithcne that morning. While my younger son, Littler J, had filed this under “Mom temporarily lost her mind” and thus felt neither responsibility nor shame, my older son felt both. I let him know that everything I did was completely, unequivocally, my fault.
We all talked about what we could do differently to make being in the kitchen enjoyable for everyone. We agreed we’d
(1) read the recipes first and get ingredients lined up
(2) clean away some kitchen clutter beforehand, for easier placement of cooking items
(3) only allow two people in the kitchen at a time: the adult cooking and, per Li’l D’s suggestion, the child who chose the recipe
As the hours passed after that especially clear example of making my own discomfort someone else’s responsibility to bear, I saw some of the ways I most routinely do this:
- Hollering at my dog to stop licking himself. Doesn’t he know how annoying-sounding is his slurping?!
- Having my kids move to different rooms or wear headphones so I can (stay exactly where I am and) have the calm that comes with increased quiet
- Snapping at my husband for starting, without warning, conversations I don’t want to have when I don’t want to have them. (Don’t we share a telepathic bond by now?!)
Full disclosure: I caught myself doing each of these things while writing the first couple sections of this post, which inspired me to ask myself, “How do I take responsibility for my own increased comfort?” and then removing myself—plus laptop—to the back porch.
As I walked past Li’l D, he asked, with some affection, “Hard to stop karening, huh?”
(If I always put his skin in the game, I’ll never feel the personal discomfort
necessary to change my own hurtful ways.)
I began this post with several questions on karening, and have shared here the partial answers I’ve found so far by paying attention to how I manage my own discomfort.
But these questions, and my starting answers, are only a small part of the story I’m starting to see with increased clarity, and much, much more slowly than almost anyone brown-skinned in the United States.
The real money is in the question I’ll address later:
Who is most likely, based on societal structures here, today,
to feel empowered to karen in public?
(and whether, indeed,
that is quite