Wednesday, October 20

Karen’s Year: How a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism | Race

TThere was no direct connection here between the “Central Park Karen” incident in New York City and the police murder of George Floyd, 46, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, beyond the coincidence of the moment. The time in the pandemic has been elastic and confusing, and reports of the separate incidents did not surface immediately, but the two events occurred on Monday, May 25, Memorial Day.

Video footage of the two incidents loom over the strange and violent summer of the coronavirus and civil unrest as a kind of digital diptych depicting the state of racism and whiteness in America in 2020.

On the one hand, Floyd was slowly and mercilessly suffocated to death under the knees of white police officer Derek Chauvin, a brutal portrayal of the relentless disregard for black life that defines American police. On the other side was 40-year-old white investment manager and mocking dog owner Amy Cooper, an avatar of the respectable white civilian demanding such violence. be brought endure on her behalf because a black man has dared to expect her to abide by the rules that govern public space.

Karen’s specter lingered as Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest swept across the country after Floyd’s murder and clashes with racism began to shake institutions, bringing down careers and statues. More than just a funny meme, Karen allowed a new kind of discourse on racism to gain credibility in America.

“We as a culture have taken this stance that white women are more virtuous and not complicit in defending racism in particular,” said Apryl Williams, a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan. “They just accept it, but they are not conscious actors. Karen’s meme says, no, they are conscious actors. These are deliberate actions. They are accomplices. And I think that’s why it bothers people. “

Amy Cooper’s Karen status was cemented when she called the police about Christian Cooper, a 57-year-old black bird watcher, after he asked her to put his dog on a leash in New City’s Central Park. York. Not content with falsely alleging, twice, that “an African American man” was “threatening me and my dog,” Cooper put on a play for the 911 operator, changing his voice register to one of anguish and panic as cried: “I’m being threatened by a man at the Ramble. Please send the police immediately. “

It was through that performance that Amy Cooper assumed the mantle of an American archetype: the white woman who arms her vulnerability to exercise violence on a black man. In the story, she is Carolyn Bryant, the adult white woman whose complaint about 14-year-old Emmett Till led him to torture and murder him at the hands of racist white adults. In literature, she is Scarlett O’Hara who sends her husband to join a KKK lynching party or Mayella Ewell testifies under oath that a black man who had helped her had raped her. In 2020, she is simply Karen.

Williams defines Karen as a “white woman who watches and patrols black people in public spaces and then calls the police for random and non-illegal infractions.” He’s been studying memes about Karen and her predecessors (BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, Pool Paula Paula, etc.) for several years, and in the magazine Social networks and society, traces Karen’s historical lineage and defends her social importance.

“In the past, black bodies were controlled in public spaces through threats of violence, lynching, and racialized terrorism directed at the routine that dictated who blacks could talk to, where they were allowed to live, and in what spaces they could exist. , “she writes.” Today, the routine act of calling the police on blacks in public spaces extends this historic practice of regulating black bodies to maintain white supremacist order. “

A man recites spoken poetry at a George Floyd memorial at the site of his arrest in Minneapolis.
A man recites poetry at a George Floyd memorial at the site where he was arrested in Minneapolis. Photograph: Lucas Jackson / Reuters

According to Williams, “Becky,” or “BBQ Becky,” the name given to a white woman who called the police to a group of blacks for using a charcoal grill in Oakland, California, was the most common nickname for that kind of white woman before the coronavirus pandemic, when Karen took off. But the name is not as important as what it means. “It’s a cultural abbreviation and can be interchanged with any number of names,” Williams said. “If my friend called me and said, ‘I had an incident with a woman at the bank today and it was a Susan,’ I wouldn’t have to say anything else. I’d say, ‘What did Susan do?’ and I already know what is coming.

“This is a continuation of a historical legacy,” he added. “We can trace it back to the Reconstruction period when vigilante groups came together to patrol freed slaves… These Karens and Beckys still serve as that kind of extra-legal patrol. In reality, they are not part of the law, but they act as executors of it. They extend the legal power, although they do not have legal power ”.

To live in the United States is to experience the passage of time through the litany of names of blacks killed or beaten by the state. In my own life, I can chart a course from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and George Floyd.

Much of the civic response to the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore focused on reform and broad systemic racism. Police body cameras were sold as a panacea. The implicit bias offered both an explanation and a justification for actions that, to those affected by them, still felt like mere racism. It is not intentionalthe story went; every white person should enjoy the benefit of the doubt, the assumption of perpetual racial innocence.

But when Karen’s summer began, it became clear that people of color in America, and especially black people, were no longer ready to accept the alibi offered by unconscious biases. Among the first to remove the band-aid was the Glee actor. Samantha ware, who responded to ex-coworker Lea Michele’s platitudes about Floyd’s murder with a reminder of how the star had treated her: “Remember when you made my first TV show hell?!?! Because I’ll never forget it. “

Soon, social media started to fill up again with testimonials of abuse by people of color, not so much #MeToo as #YouToo. You have also been a racist, the timing of the reckoning warned, and your co-workers and subordinates will not keep your secrets for you more.

It would be foolish to attribute the entire 2020 racial reckoning to the power of Karen’s memes, but it would also be foolish to dismiss her influence. Williams compares it to that of the black press. Events that would otherwise be ignored: a white woman in San Francisco calling the police about a man who chalked “Black Lives Matter” on his building, for example, became national news once they fit into Karen’s memetic framework.

“The Becky and Karen memes provide a vital social function,” writes Williams. “They give agency back to black communities by allowing them to exercise a form of justice on the perpetrators. In a subversion and reversal of power dynamics, the creators of black memes watch over white supremacy and explicitly ask for consequences. “

Of course, any attempt by blacks to assert power against white supremacy is instantly met with a backlash, and the backlash against Karen’s memes was practically predestined. Complaints about Karen being sexist they were notable above all for how well they recreated Karen’s dynamic. Faced with evidence of their own agency and complicity, some white women responded by reaffirming their status as victims.

What I have found especially helpful about Karen’s memes is the way they have given willing white women a tool with which to assess their own behavior and, if they wish, to improve it. My own mother, who is white, has rarely displayed behavior that bordered on Karen-esque. This summer, for the first time, he recognized some of those Karen tendencies towards me and declared his intention not to act like that anymore, a conversation I’m not sure we would have had without the meme.

Williams recalled similar conversations with white friends and offered three simple rules to avoid being a Karen. One: recognize the privilege and history of being a white woman in this society. Two: Avoid calling the police about people of color unless someone is in imminent danger of harm. And three: “Understand that it’s not always about you, period. People are not trying to get you for the most part, people are not trying to hurt you or damage your property or make you feel uncomfortable, “he said. “You’re not that special, Karen.” You’re not that special. “

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