My name is Karen.
I am white and privileged and middle-aged. But I am not angry, nor racist, nor feeling entitled.
Or am I?!
Someone somewhere in recent weeks decided to label angry, privileged, racist, entitled, middle-aged white women with the name “Karen.”
Cell phone news feeds almost daily now describe rants or show video clips of these angry “Karens” spewing hate and fury at someone – likely someone who either is black, or asking them to wear a mask, or whatever else these “Karens” have deemed against their rights and privileges.
The first time I saw such a news feed, I thought the person in question was literally named “Karen.” Then I slowly came to realize that the name “Karen” somehow has come to symbolize negativity, entitlement, racism, rage, and, well, being white.
I started doing some soul searching several days ago when these persistent stories about “Karens” kept popping up. Didn’t these people – the ones who made “Karen” synonymous with “hate” – know that the name “Karen” actually means “pure one”?!
Granted, I never claimed to be pure, but I always wanted to be.
I felt like an alcoholic who doesn’t want to admit her addiction. I wanted to shout to the world: “My name is Karen, and I am NOT a racist. I am NOT entitled. I am NOT angry. I am NOT ….”
Of course, I couldn’t do anything about the fact that I AM white.
And then I realized, much to my chagrin: I was shouting, at least internally. I was angry that my name had been co-opted by some unnamed person(s) out there to symbolize all that I abhorred. I felt entitled to be the one to determine what my name should represent.
In short, I wanted to reclaim my name.
Yet, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the irony. Here I was – angry that someone had designated the name I was assigned at birth as somehow being anti- all that I found worthy, good, uplifting and virtuous.
Yes, I am “privileged,” but I want to believe it is privilege that has resulted from hard work and a lot of effort over the course of my life. I began working the summer after my freshman year in high school. I worked after school, weekends and summers throughout the rest of my high school years and throughout college. I even worked full time my senior year of college, while also completing a full course load, as well. I was a workaholic throughout my professional career, often taking work on vacations.
I was a “saver” from my earliest years, thanks to listening to my mother, who taught me to give 10% of my allowance to the church or charity and put another 10% in savings – and then I could do what I wanted with the remaining 80%. I started doing that with a 50-cent allowance and just kept doing it. Over the course of time, the nickels and dimes and accrued interest morphed into a nice nest egg, for which I feel extremely grateful. I don’t consider myself “wealthy.” Just “comfortable.”
But as I soul-searched, I felt growing discomfort and dis-ease:
Did I benefit, even unknowingly, from being white in obtaining those after-school, summer and weekend jobs?
Did I benefit, even unknowingly, from being white in my choice of university education? I had earned academic scholarships and need-based grants and worked on-campus and off-campus jobs to pay my way through Baylor University. As a private, independent university in Texas, it was known for being attended by wealthy, white students. There were few blacks in the student body, faculty or administration when I attended in the mid-1970s. For that matter, there were few, if any, gays – at least not openly so.
I never “saw” it.
I felt the economic disparity while attending, as many of my fellow students drove fancy cars or were members of fraternities or sororities that were geared to the high-society types. I drove a clunker of a car and ignored the frat scene, not only because of the money required to participate, but also the time. Between working and studies and attending class, I had none to give.
It just never dawned on me that I was swimming in a white, heterosexual, privileged sea.
Throughout my career, there were few minorities as colleagues. Churches I attended were predominantly if not solely white. I had some black “acquaintances,” but none I could claim as “close friends.”
Could I be racist, and privileged, and angry, and not realize it?
I don’t want to think so. But I had not shown visible solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” protests. I grieved silently about George Floyd’s death, but had said nothing. I watched statues of Confederate heroes or slave owners being torn down and understood the rationale, while also wondering if there couldn’t be a better way to achieve the same end.
I watched the growing dichotomy between political camps – again, from a distance. I hated all the diatribes from both sides, particularly as politics seemed to inform public health decisions.
I wore a mask and was meticulous and diligent about social distancing and sanitizing protocols – not because of any political affiliation, but because I had just finished a year of treatment for breast cancer and was still clinically anemic and vulnerable. No one would be able to tell that by looking at me now, as my hair has grown back and I’d started to get some energy back. But somehow, wearing a mask at my local grocery store during initial re-opening days made me feel as if I was being labeled politically.
The soul-searching led me deeper. Years of inner spiritual work and forays into Stoic philosophy, the works of spiritual giants of various faith traditions, and, well, just plain old experience had taught me a few things that I try to live by:
Anger is often fueled by fear – fear of losing possessions, losing a person, losing one’s health, even losing one’s very identity.
The healthy way to deal with anger is to first acknowledge it and then use that energy as fuel to transform the anger into pity, compassion, or even love. Yes, easier said than done, but it is doable. It just takes lots and lots of practice.
When confronted with something that makes me unsure as to next steps, stop and consider a couple of simple questions to guide me to the right choice: Does the teaching, the person, the circumstance, the whatever make me feel more humble? Does it offer me an opportunity to love my enemies? And would a potential thought, word, or deed be in keeping with my core belief and aim – to treat another person as I would want to be treated?
In the midst of all the “Karen-ness,” the racial protests, the political invectives, the pandemic, global warming – the inherent chaos swirling around – when I put it all to the test, I can only come to one conclusion:
To reclaim my name, I must live it.
To change public thinking about what it means to be a “Karen,” I must show pity, compassion, and yes, even love – not only to my friends and family, but to my “enemies.” That means not only feeling pity and compassion and love for the marginalized, the victims of racism, sexism or abuse, or the less-privileged, but also for the perpetrators of racism, sexism and abuse, for the ones whose political opinions differ from my own … and even, yes, for the angry, white, racist, privileged, entitled “Karens.”
As Jesus once said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As hokey and as preachy as it might seem, this is what is mine to do: to show love – to be love – even to those I might otherwise deem not worthy of it.
Only when I can do that will I have truly reclaimed my name.