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  • Jacob Darcy

'Karen'. Good, harmless, class-conscious stuff.

I know you might be thinking this review is hardly groundbreaking stuff. It isn't and really isn't meant to be. The world we're in now fills us with dread whenever we listen to the news, with almost every day waking up to yet more bad news. I was reluctant to talk about COVID-19 and cognate issues, and instead I thought about talking about something comparatively more arbitrary, but also a little lighter and less divisive. So, I am instead going to explain why I believe the 'Karen' meme is not offensive. After Shand-Baptiste wrote that 'Karen' as a term is the equivalent of the N-word for white women for a tiny minority, I immediately knew I'd found my literary calling. I'll elaborate for clarity. 'Karen' as a term is in essence a slightly more concentrated 'OK Boomer', it stereotypes the "anti-vaxxer soccer mom" wanting to "speak to the manager" (Romano, 2020). With a sneering middle class superiority complex which they enjoy flexing on the working classes, especially those in the service industry, what I call 'Low Karen' is simply a mocking caricature of entitled behaviour, power flexing for the sake of it maybe. Low Karen doesn't do high level disruption, and their complaints are frankly unreasonable and often just ludicrous. Imagine trying to argue a screw-top wine is corked and you have Low Karen behaviour. Low Karen is more common than 'High Karen' for white service industry workers like myself. High Karen displays far more problematic behaviours, with the High Karen caricature stereotyping middle class white women berating staff for not speaking English, crossing the road to avoid those groups they don't like, and being unapologetically arrogant (Shand-Baptiste, 2020). My taxonomy of 'Karens' is simply to reflect the gravity of behaviours associated with the term. Low Karen is annoying, sneering, middle class, and unreasonable. High Karen is racist, classist, sexist, a caricature of sneering privilege. As a white guy in the service industry, I only ever really encounter the Low Karen making complaints to the manager about minor non-issues such as running out of a particular item or taking too long to be served despite the bar clearly being busy. High Karen in fact, as Brewster writes, was created by Black women to personify racist middle class white women who patronise POCs at work, call the police on them for going about their days, and on some occasions stopping POC neighbours in apartment buildings accessing the building they live in (2020). Both Karens then, do not stereotype a specific group of people, but a group of behaviours associated with some of a specific group of people; specifically white, middle aged, middle class women. The comparison of 'Karen' to the n-word is one most of us easily dismiss as absurd, nevertheless we might at least argue 'Karen' is an unhelpful pejorative, and despite not being particularly hurtful or offensive, is a term we should refrain from. To consider this, I'll be considering a Marxian analysis to the linguistics of 'Karen', and in doing so considering 'Karen' as a linguistic weapon of class conflict. In short, taking inspiration from Brewster and Shand-Baptiste, the language phenomenon of 'Karen' can be placed in the context of a class-structure, and in considering the deconstructive power of 'Karen' (Philips 1992, p. 379). 'Karen' as a term briefly, represents a linguistic flashpoint within which the bottom of the class hierarchy can carry out an organised deconstruction of those above them in the class hierarchy. For High Karen, white feminists like Bindel seem to have conveniently forgotten that 'Karen' calls out behaviours and their perpetrators, Karen doesn't begin at the person, but begins at their racism and their classism. It begins when the middle aged middle class white woman berates a server for the temerity of communicating with their colleagues in Spanish. The point is simple, unlike racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs that are applied to people purely on the basis of their racial, gender, or sexual identity, 'Karen' a callback to behaviours that are chosen to be engaged in. Bindel's view reminds of a title of a paper discussing white feminism and women of color, specifically Ortega's "Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color" (2006, p. 56). White feminism has occupied a term originating with people of colour, and in doing so undermines the empowering mockery that term provides to people of colour in an attempt seemingly to accommodate the feelings of white women. Ortega's title I think is particularly brilliant because it captures something that by Bindel could be unintentional hostility to the 'Karen' term being used as a commentary on white privilege. Low Karen likes to complain over the trivial, and whilst the behaviours do not begin with the prejudices of the 'High Karen', Low Karen is nevertheless unreasonable. Bindel writes that in this context, 'Karen' demonises women standing up for themselves and being empowered in behaving in ways that no one would question if they were men (2020). This misses the point. Reasonable complaints and behaving with respect are not covered by the 'Karen' term, standing up for one self when justified isn't at all what 'Karen' as a term is there for in the context of the service sector at least. In short, Low Karen is more concerned with a power imbalance in the realm of class, 'Low Karen' is the middle class customer berating the working class barista for using oat milk when she clearly said she wanted soy, and finds this error so incensing she demands to speak to the manager right away. The power balance is less important in the realm of 'Low Karen' than it is with 'High Karen', the latter bears on a context of systemic and long-standing brutal oppression, the former can be very harmful (especially when unreasonable complaints cost innocent employees their jobs) but mostly is just annoying entitlement. 'Karen' in both contexts, organises the behaviours associated with the term by creating an unambiguous link between the behaviours and a mocking stereotype. The bottom of the class hierarchy create a common language through which they can isolate 'upper' members of the hierarchy and in doing so, subversively minimise the impact of the 'Karen' behaviour. The servers in the back complaining about 'Karen' facilitates a solidarity amongst the bottom of the class hierarchy, a common language and a common enemy perhaps. 'Karen' doesn't have to be wealthy to be further up the hierarchy, both 'High' and 'Low' Karen occupy a position further up the dynamic social ladder in the context of their encounters with those below them. The arbitrary complaints made by Low Karen at Dairy Queen do not risk any significant quantity of welfare for the Karen, but the same can't necessarily be said for the subjects of those complaints. Language is a product of consciousness in the Marxian critique, and we can see that here in both High and Low Karen, the materialist understanding of 'Karen' allows us to view the term to capture the social reality for those on the bottom of the social hierarchy (Fairclough and Graham, 2002, p. 19). The comic appeal and the memes that follow offer the ability to those on the receiving end of 'Karen' behaviour to identify very closely with one another, and in doing so become conscious of how to act as a 'Karen' is to demean those in a far less powerful, and far more vulnerable position. Labelling someone as a 'Karen' when their behaviour is befitting, switches up the power balance by a common understanding of the antagonism between 'Karen' and their nemesis providing a clear indication of the class-focussed nature of 'Karen' behaviour. Briefly, the comic side of 'Karen' mocks behaviours that most would find distasteful, and creates a light-hearted weapon of class-consciousness that empowers those on the bottom rung of class dynamics in specific scenarios. In the real world, it's not that deep. Not really at least. What I have tried to do is at least consider the role 'Karen' plays as a light-hearted pejorative, because really that's all it is. 'Karen' simply pokes fun at a behaviour exhibited by the beneficiary of the class spectrum in specific situations. I'm yet to encounter anyone frothing at the mouth on the topic of 'Karens', and it will probably stay that way. But to those on the receiving end of 'Karen' behaviour, a common language of these behaviours offers a lifeline. A means by which they and other 'Karen' victims can share their stories without fear. A way for them to see there's hope. Or at least a way to laugh off such behaviour if nothing else. 'Karen' then isn't without significance. It might not be deep, but it isn't at all innocuous. References Bindel, J. (2020). [Twitter]. 5 April. Available at: https://twitter.com/bindelj/status/1246800996841467908 (Accessed: 27/4/2020). Brewster, K. (2020). White Feminist Suggests Use of ‘Karen’ Is Slur Against Women, Black Twitter Promptly Corrects Her Assertation. Available at: https://atlantablackstar.com/2020/04/06/white-feminist-suggests-use-of-karen-is-slur-against-women-black-twitter-promptly-corrects-her-assertation/ (Accessed: 27/4/2020) Fairclough, N. and Graham, P. W. (2002). 'Marx as critical discourse analyst: the genesis of a critical method and its relevance to the critique of global capital'. Sociolinguistic Studies. 3(1). pp. 185-229. QUT ePrints [Online]. Available at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/29764/ (Accessed: 27/4/2020). Ortega, M. (2006). 'Being lovingly, knowingly ignorant: White feminism and women of color'. Hypatia. 21(3). pp. 56-74. Wiley Online Library [Online]. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2006.tb01113.x (Accessed: 27/4/2020). Philips, S. U. (1992). 'A Marx-influenced approach to ideology and language: Comments.'. Pragmatics. 2(3). pp. 377-385. [Online]. Available at: https://journals.linguisticsociety.org/elanguage/pragmatics/article/download/230/230-517-1-PB.pdf (Accessed: 27/4/2020). Romano, A. (2020). Karen: The anti-vaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair, explained. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2020/2/5/21079162/karen-name-insult-meme-manager (Accessed: 27/4/2020). Shand-Baptiste, K. (2020). 'No, Karen is not the equivalent of the N-word for white women – this isn’t a debate worth having'. The Independent. 8th April. [Online]. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/karen-n-word-racism-white-women-julie-bindel-coronavirus-a9453201.html (Accessed: 27/4/2020).

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