What's in a name? Plenty when the name is Karen and the whole world hates you

accreditation
0:00
play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Karin Schimke and Karen Jeynes have written the rule book on how to avoid being an obnoxious Karen. PHOTOS: Eric Miller and supplied
Karin Schimke and Karen Jeynes have written the rule book on how to avoid being an obnoxious Karen. PHOTOS: Eric Miller and supplied

Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that your name is suddenly cropping up in memes. The name Karen has become synonymous with a white woman who is often racist and doesn't hesitate to use her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others. 

You're most likely to encounter her in Woolies, throwing her weight around and demanding to see the manager.

For many Karens it's been hard seeing their name linked with this crass stereotype because truth is it's not just Karens who are to blame - there are a lot of people who demonstrate this type of behaviour. 

That's why two local writers, Karin Schimke and Karen Jeynes, decided to write a whole book on the subject of Karenism. It sounds like a bit of a stretch but they actually managed to fill almost 200 pages, offering solid advice on how to tame your inner Karen and use her power for good.

Here is a wise and witty sample from The Karen Book of Rules.

Karin-with-an-i

Hi there,

I’m not gonna lie. I was horrified when my name was first taken in vain. No one wants to feel like a stereotype and it cut badly that I seemed to fit the bill perfectly: I’m white and middle-aged, I have children and opinions, and I’ve had some very iffy hairstyles in my life. 

There was also this one time I actually really did demand to see a manager. So: 100% Stereotypes-R-Us.

When the Karen memes started popping up with increasing regularity in connection with bad public behaviour around 2018, I was deeply and terribly embarrassed that my name – and in fact my entire body – was one big fat cliché. No one wants to be a cliché. 

But then I remembered about all those times when being a certain type had been to my advantage. I’d noticed years ago, for instance, that if there’s a long counter at a hop, like at the hardware, say, from behind which one or two people are serving, and the queue is a bit higgledypiggledy, the person at the till will look up from having served someone and then always beckon me next when other people had been there before me. 

I’m always super-aware of who was in the queue first, because I have a horror of queue jumping, so I always gesture to whoever I know was there before me to go ahead, unexpectedly giving me an opportunity to demonstrate what a magnanimous human being I am. This happened enough times for me start working out a pattern.

What distinguishes me for quick service is not my age (there were older people in the queue), or my gender (there are other women in the queue) but the colour of my skin (I was the only white person in the queue.)

Also, no one has, to my knowledge, ever snitched on me on a WhatsApp group for walking down the street in a neighbourhood I don’t live in. There are many, many – so very many – times when being the type "white" has come in very handy.

Everything I have, in fact, is probably due, to a degree of about 90% (I just plucked that out of the ether, so don’t ask me how I came to it), to the fact that I am white.

For a white woman who thought she’d "done the work" – who had always tried to contextualise her whiteness and its built-in perks – to realise that she was being typecast was an uncomfortable experience.

I had always been able, I’d congratulated myself, to at least try to imagine how racism felt, how psychically destabilising it had to be to be considered not quite up to scratch by some ephemeral standard set by whoever was currently driving the bus in the country you lived in. 

Cause, don’t you know . . . the default human being is white! And white people are not types!

But no amount of imagining had prepared me for people making up their minds that, based on my age, hairstyle and accent, I probably ate avo on toast for lunch every day, voted for the DA and went to Pilates three times a week. Now I knew how it felt to be stereotyped.

Whatever the truth of my lunch, political and exercise predilections is, it was irrelevant, because some people had already made up their minds about me.

I want to be special and different and, most decidedly, I do not want the colour of my skin to speak for me to unbelievers of my specialness before I have even opened my mouth.

Wait, hang on. Am I suffering from the insult of racism? But that, surely, is reserved for others? Other people are seen as types. Not my people. We see types. We don’t be types. Cause, don’t you know . . . the default human being is white! And white people are not types! We are all so many and varied! This feels very much like racism!

To add insult to injury, everything karen stood for in the memes was what I have expressly not stood for in life. So, ja. It was hard. And embarrassing. It did grind my gears that karens were seen not just as vaguely annoying and mockworthy, but outright hideous, really. Karens are entitled, demanding, loud, insensitive, hands-on-hips hissy-fit racists with long blonde fringes.

You should watch some #calmdownkaren videos if you want to know just how vile they can be.

The racist part stung. It always stings. If you’re white and you hear "racist" every cell in your body streams towards a Edvard Munch yawp of denial: "I am not a racist! My uncle . . . now that’s a racist! But moi? I have a black friend, FFS!"

It’s part of white people’s DNA to a) be racist and b) deny being racist. Oh, and also, sorry, c) quickly point out when someone says something racist against white people. That’s how we roll.

We do not, on the whole, love discussing racism as it affects others, though. For instance, some white people don’t think its racist to call the coronavirus "the China virus", to call black men serving us coffee in coffee shops "my man" or to touch a black woman’s hair and shout, "Oh my God, I love your hair!" 

But if you call those white people a karen for doing any of those things, they are sitting down with you, in your home, to explain how racist the term karen is. White people have very strong views on whether people who are not white can talk to us about our privilege. We worked bloody hard to get where we are so don’t you go thinking this was all handed to us on a platter. 

And just because you’re also white, don’t think you can talk to me about privilege, you bleeding-heart liberal twit! You have no idea what’s happening out there! Did you know the farmers are being murdered?

So, being the owner of a name that implies that "my people" are racist and that I am, therefore, by implication, racist myself . . . well, it was hard to swallow.

It’s been two years now since I first made my acquaintance with karen from the memes and after extensive soul-searching the conclusion I came to was that, wait for it, IT’S NOT ABOUT ME AT ALL! I, the white Karin-with-an-i who inhabits this middle-aged body in this particular decade, do not have be hurt. I can choose!

Anyway, since I’d become an expert at karenness I felt that, in the spirit of things, I would share my findings. I wanted to think about whether there is anything to be saved from the wreck of the name.

Is a karen boring in her predictable vileness? Is there anything about her character that might be endearing? And if not, can we at least use karens as an example of how not to be? More particularly, I wanted to think about how what is horrible about karens can be present in anyone, regardless of hairstyle, and how, daily, we are confronted with the big question: to be a karen or not to be a karen. 

No one’s written a good old-fashioned book about manners for a while. So here I am, a white middle-aged karen telling you how to do stuff properly. Karens are highly qualified to boss people around, because they’ve been doing it their whole lives.

I didn’t want to take all the flack for the presumption, though, so I approached my colleague Karen-with-an-e to work with me on this. I chose her because I have watched over the years how she daily decides to be lekker. And also because she’s very funny.I like people like that. Whether they’re called Karen or not.

Love,

Karin-with-an-i


Are you a Karen? Take the test and find out

1. How many managers have you spoken to in the past week?

a) 0

b) 1

c) 2

d) more than 4

e) I AM the manager

2. When you were a kid and the teacher left the classroom, did you:

a) Keep to yourself

b) chat with your desk buddy

c) start making a list of who was breaking the rules

d) run to call the principal because the teacher was being negligent

e) burn the classroom to the ground

3. If you’re at a restaurant with a no-smoking section and someone starts smoking, do you:

a) Ignore them

b) go over and ask them to stop

c) cough loudly and glare

d) report them loudly to the manager

e) I’m probably the one smoking

4. What was the last meme you shared?

a) I still do emoji using punctuation

b) a karen meme

c) I can’t remember, I post so many

d) I went viral for my rant

e) I only post Bible quotes

5. Have you ever checked your privilege?

a) What does that even mean?

b) I acknowledge my privilege

c) Yes, it’s definitely still there!

d) OMG, why do you have to make everything about race!

e) I BASK in my privilege

6. If your child got detention for breaking the rules,would you:

a) Take away their internet access for a month

b) sigh, that’s the fourth time this term; parenting is hard

c) kids will be kids

d) demand that the principal make an allowance because your poor baby has ANXIETY

e) Ferris Bueller them out of there

7. When your friends get together, you mostly:

a) Enjoy hikes and nature

b) party

c) go on an expensive holiday

d) judge others; it’s the most fun

e) burn shit

8. Your celebrity role model is:

a) Tom Hanks

b) Oprah

c) Jameela Jamil

d) Gwyneth Paltrow

e) Post Malone

Answers

Mostly As: You’re not a karen but damn, life is a bit boring sometimes, isn’t it? I hope you have a good friend or a houseplant or something that you can talk to. Try something a bit exciting this week, like a new flavour of ice cream.

Mostly Bs: You could be a karen, but you mostly choose not to be. You have the instincts largely under control. I suspect one day you’ll snap and go absolutely nuclear and I hope someone films it and puts it on YouTube.

Mostly Cs: You think you’re not a karen, but you are. You probably laugh at the karen memes the Bs are sharing, while they’re sharing them to have a passive-aggressive go at you. Oops.

Mostly Ds: Hi KAREN. Welcome to our book. I hope you enjoy it. If not, the contact details for the manager, I mean publisher, are easy to find.

Mostly Es: Good grief, are you okay? I mean, I don’t think you’re a karen, but seriously, are you well? If you’re looking for a nice stable friend, can I suggest one of the As?

The Karen Book of Rules By Karin Schimke and Karen Jeynes, Tafelberg

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
LATEST YOU
LATEST YOU
Read your favourite magazine in a convenient PDF form.
Read now