This post will segue from a discussion of Booksmart to a discussion of issues relating to the Karen meme.
The link might not for some readers be fully concrete, but in a week when Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake 7 times, and in which Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors and seriously injured one more in Kenosha, Wisconsin – before going to the police, who, it is alleged, initially gave him water before sending him on his way (only later to arrest him), the wider contemporary context of Black Lives Matter seems worth bearing in mind, and, indeed, addressing.
This is not to mention the appearance at the Republican National Convention this week of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, after they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protestors in St Louis, Missouri, back in late June.
I open a blog on a well-meaning and enjoyable comedy like Booksmart with an invocation of Sheskey, Rittenhouse and the McCloskeys in order to suggest that the white supremacy of the film perhaps requires a certain (‘black’) lens in order to be seen (or, after Denise Ferreira da Silva, the white supremacy of Booksmart might be seen if we look at it under a ‘blacklight‘) – something that is far less necessary when we consider the (more obvious) white supremacy of, say, The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019).
Part of my job was recently made much easier when Jackson Wright wrote about Booksmart precisely in terms of ‘white complexity, white complicity and new stereotype.’
In his essay, he discusses how the non-white characters in the film are reduced to minor roles, and that these are all somewhat stereotyped. Click on the link above to check out Wright’s brief but informative essay to get the full details of this.
But in order to summarise, I might simply quote Wright in order to say that, although Olivia Wilde’s film was well received critically,
[a] lack of both complex nonwhite characters and women of color who are the same age as the protagonists point to the fact that Booksmart was a white victory, and that with only white victories, there follows white superiority.
Beyond Wright’s important intervention, then, I would like simply to highlight two moments in the film – neither of which gets a mention in his short essay.
Susan B. Anthony
The first takes place early on in the film when ‘booksmart’ protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discuss how they should be more rebellious, especially as they approach the end of school.
‘Name one person whose life was better ’cause they broke rules,’ says Amy in a challenge to Molly, who promptly names Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony as examples of unruly women who, indeed, broke rules and made a case for a more inclusive, and less sexist USA.
It is Anthony with whom we shall stick in this discussion, and her name might well be familiar to contemporary readers, not least because of this mention in Booksmart (which no doubt has prompted numerous Google searches), but also because Donald J. Trump recently called for Anthony to be pardoned posthumously for voting illegally in 1872.
Anthony is a formidable and venerable figure in the history of women’s rights in the USA, and the aim here is not to deny what work she has done in furthering the rights of white women in that country.
However, as Angela Y. Davis has outlined at some length in her classic text, Women, Race & Class, Anthony also was quite prepared to forego her interest in emancipation for Black Americans when the issue of the vote for white women was concerned.
Indeed, Davis reports exchanges between Anthony and Ida B. Wells, who founded the first Black women’s suffrage club, in which Anthony explains how and why she dis-invited Black emancipation campaigner Frederick Douglass from a visit being made by her Suffrage Association to Atlanta, Georgia.
As Anthony said to Wells, and as she is quoted by Davis: ‘I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the southern white women into our suffrage association.’
That is, Anthony did not want the presence of a Black campaigner to diminish support for her bid for women’s suffrage – which here means white women’s suffrage.
Furthermore, as Davis goes on to report, Anthony ‘also refused [this is in 1894] to support the efforts of several Black women who wanted to form a branch of the suffrage association. She did not want to awaken the anti-black hostility of her white Southern members, who might withdraw from the organisation if Black women were admitted’ (Davis 1983: 111-112).
Davis goes on to detail various other ways in which, when faced with the choice between fighting for the rights of all women and fighting for the rights of white women, Anthony chose white women.
From a white perspective, we might say that Anthony was in an ‘impossible’ situation, and that it is better to achieve the vote for at least some people/one ‘minority’ than to achieve the vote for no one because one is demanding too much (by demanding for the equal rights of Blacks).
However, this does not change the fact that Blacks were effectively thrown under the bus – and Anthony sided with the powerful in order to achieve something for white women only, rather than siding with the oppressed in a bid to achieve something for everyone.
Perhaps a ‘realist’ would say that history does not remember idealists who ask for ‘too much.’ But even if this were so, it is a position that accepts as legitimate a white supremacist system that only continued as the USA progressed from slavery to Jim Crow.
Furthermore, if this position is ‘realist[ic],’ then it really is suggesting that white reality is a ‘truer’ or more legitimate reality than a non-white reality. That is, ‘realism’ is determined by white supremacy.
The appeal to reality and realism, while hypothetical (in that it is I who speculate what a ‘realist’ might argue, without having actually encountered such an argument), is nonetheless important.
For equally at work in Anthony’s choice of white women over all women is the implication that white women are worth more than Black women, and that Black women are somehow not women, or not ‘real’ women.
If one wanted to win the vote for women, then one must want to win the vote for all women; if one settles for white women only, then either one does not consider Black women to be women, or one does not really want to win the vote for all women at all.
And if a black woman falls into a secondary category ‘below’ white women, such that she may not, as Sojourner Truth might suggest, be a woman, then this only reflects how Blacks have not historically been considered real humans/have historically not really been considered human, in the USA and further afield (including the UK).
Not being ‘as human’ as a white, and perhaps not even being ‘human,’ means that Black lives are deemed not to matter as much as white lives, and that perhaps Black lives do not matter at all.
Black Lives Matter, then, exists to remind us precisely of the opposite; that Black lives do matter. And that there is not a hierarchy whereby white lives matter more than black lives, which is what we would call white supremacy.
By this token, we can indeed say that ‘all lives matter,’ but to insist on saying this when the contemporary USA, as well as a contemporary postcolonial globe, insists repeatedly on demonstrating that not all lives do matter (to paraphrase George Orwell, all lives may well be equal, but apparently some are ‘more equal’ than others) is what is typically (and problematically?) referred to as ‘tone deaf.’
(Perhaps it is problematic since, in eliding [quasi-]racism with both those without a musical ear and those who are hard of hearing, it is perhaps an insult to the latter two groups.)
To return to our main argument, though, to argue that ‘all lives matter’ misses the point that to assert Black Lives Matter is done in the face of clear evidence that for many people they do not.
Willfully to diminish the Black Lives Matter movement is in effect to reaffirm white supremacy; to insist that ‘all lives matter’ wants to deny a moment of Black centrality in order to restore the historical and ongoing status quo whereby white lives matter most.
For all of its charm, then (and I am happy to say that I enjoyed Booksmart upon initial viewing, even as it might also be critiqued not only from the perspective of race, but also from the perspective of class, in that all of the Angelinos that we see in it are basically rich kids), Booksmart invokes an historical figure who stood for white women’s suffrage at the expense of women’s suffrage – in order to inspire two white women to… party and get drunk for a night, surrounded by a supporting cast of less-developed characters of colour.
The fact that white women’s suffrage is here expressed in the form of getting drunk carries several important connotations. The first is that even if political engagement by the likes of Anthony is in hindsight understood as problematic and/or incomplete, such political engagement now justifies hedonism and consumerism.
As such, Booksmart might embody what in academic parlance is sometimes referred to as a shift from feminism to postfeminism: feminism reworked not against but rather for capitalism – something that we shall also see manifest in discussions of consumerism towards the end of this blog.
Furthermore, that Amy and Molly’s night of drunken mayhem is spent with various non-white characters suggests that hedonism is a kind of ‘slumming’ done here by whites among the non-whites who supposedly do it regularly – even though whites are more commonly arrested in the USA for alcohol-related misdemeanours.
Finally, and more importantly, is that when Amy is arrested precisely for being drunk, the entire scene goes down in an amusing fashion.
White perp walking
We in fact see the scene of Amy’s arrest via social media, in that Molly wakes up after her night out to a series of text messages lauding Amy, whom she then sees in a video getting arrested by the cops.
‘There are more prisons than colleges in the US, did you know that? And it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California. That’s more than Harvard!’ says Amy as she gets ‘perp walked’ to the cop car.
Then, as they move her towards the backseat, she says: ‘This seems excessive. Shotgun. Just kidding. I don’t have one.’
It is a moment that contains various important, if understated, details.
First of all, the ‘heroic’ arrest and/or moment of ‘hilarious’ insolence towards cops is a staple of the teen film, with a notable example being Superbad (Greg Mottola, USA, 2007).
(I have another blog to write at some point in time about how Seth Rogen’s films continue to demonstrate a pretty conservative streak, even though as a comedian Rogen might come across as ‘liberal’; for some notes in this direction, see a relatively recent blog on Long Shot, Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019; with the recent American Pickle, Brandon Trost, USA, 2020, moving in a similar direction. That Rogen plays a cop in Superbad would probably make for a decent starting point for considering this aspect of his star persona…)
What is more, this funny irreverence towards cops is not isolated to white kids, as per Superbad and Booksmart. Indeed, in 21 & Over (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, USA, 2013), Justin Chon’s Jeff Chang dances on a cop car and gets arrested, suggesting that not only white kids, but also Asian kids (who are, after all, the ‘model minority’) can defy the authority of the police.
However, when we consider the way in which irreverence towards cops by Black characters can lead to death, as per recent films like The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr, USA, 2018) and Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), then it seems clear that Blacks cannot ‘enjoy’ humour and heroism in the same way that white characters can.
And when we now consider not movies but real-world police shootings of Black people, like Jacob Blake and so many others, then we might understand that every time a Black American comes into contact with a police officer, there is no joking to be done – since one’s life is at risk.
To joke with the cops, then, is something that is acceptable for whites, tolerable for ‘yellows,’ and intolerable for Blacks. And so to show such a joking moment in Booksmart and for it to be funny demonstrates unthinking whiteness on the part of the filmmakers and an assumption of whiteness on the part of the viewer.
(It is not that you have to be white to find this moment funny; but I might suggest that you do adopt a white perspective when/if you do find this moment funny, regardless of one’s actual [perceived] skin colour.)
Now, I wish generously to suggest that the whiteness of Booksmart‘s white perp walking does not necessarily mean that the moment is white supremacist; in joking with cops, Amy is expressing her empowered white status, but she is not necessarily expressing antiblackness.
However, the scene does in many ways set Amy up as the typical white woman that Hazel V. Carby calls ‘the prize object[s] of the Western world’; that is, Amy is not only defiant of the police, but in some ways she is also protected rather than threatened by them, such that she can make a joke about having a weapon in front of them and get away with it. The police were never going to shoot Amy; they wouldn’t, because as a young white woman, it is her service and protection for which the police stand.
But more than this, Amy’s explanation to the cops about the cost of American prisons suggests not just a white logic but a white supremacist logic at work at this moment (if the two can actually be separated).
This might seem counter-intuitive, in that Amy speaks a truth about the incarceration system of the USA, and she is, after all, planning on spending a year in Botswana before going to university – unlike most of her friends who are heading straight for the Ivies.
That is, Amy might speak here as someone invested in social justice and Black lives – both in the USA, where African Americans are disproportionately kept in prison (as the same Angela Y. Davis, among other writers, has argued across various texts, including this one), and in Africa itself.
However, that Amy offers these statistics at the point of her arrest would seem to suggest that she does not feel that she should be arrested. That is, in saying to the cops that ‘[t]here are more prisons than colleges in the US,’ and that ‘it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California… That’s more than Harvard,’ Amy seems to be saying that she should NOT be used to swell prison numbers, that she is not the sort of person that needs to be arrested, not least because she will end up costing the American taxpayer more than if she went to an Ivy League school like her friends.
This moment might in some senses involve canny writing on the part of Booksmart‘s (white) screenwriters, in that Amy betrays here her own belief that she is the ‘prize object’ and not a ‘real’ criminal. However, it would seem that the film also endorses Amy’s perspective by playing this moment for laughs.
That the moment is also accompanied by a statement from a relatively wealthy white woman about prisons basically not being for her (she should not cause the American taxpayer any undue expense – because she is white) in effect reveals a truth: prisons are not really for white Americans, but actually ways for (white) American taxpayers to pay for Black Americans not to be otherwise out in society.
Forasmuch as it is ‘good fun,’ then, Booksmart demonstrates that good fun is much more readily accessible if your skin is white, even as it reclaims from Superbad the idea that irreverent and empowering ‘fun’ is uniquely a masculine pursuit.
In other words, empowering hedonism is only empowering to those who are already empowered; those who are not empowered simply cannot act in the way that Amy does here, since it might well lead to death.
In some senses, then, Booksmart offers to us perhaps exactly the legacy of Susan B. Anthony: white women are here empowered at the expense of non-whites. In this way, Booksmart in the contemporary moment arguably takes on dimensions of being a ‘Karen factory,’ while also showing how Susan B. Anthony might well be a proto-‘Karen,’ an association made between the two by Helen Lewis in her Atlantic article on the Karen phenomenon, to which we shall turn presently.
‘The Mythology of Karen’
What follows is going potentially to be controversial – because the term ‘Karen’ conveys several linked but slightly different meanings, and in choosing its white supremacist connotations as my preferred meaning of ‘Karen,’ I run the risk of negating the reality of those other meanings (which tend to focus primarily on the idea that the term is sexist).
All the same, I wish to suggest that the very conflation of Karen’s slightly different meanings (racial and sexist) functions as a means to negate the one positive political use to which the term can be put, namely to critique white supremacy.
In her article, Lewis carefully identifies the racialised history of the term, explaining herself that it started out as ‘an indictment of racial privilege,’ with a key example from 2020 being the accusation by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper that he was threatening her in a park in New York on the day that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
What is more, Lewis as mentioned evokes Susan B. Anthony, thereby further suggesting that the latter is/was a proto-Karen avant la lettre, not least for her notorious 1869 statement that ‘[i]f intelligence, justice and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women be brought up first and that of the negro last’ – although Lewis does also contextualise this statement by saying that Anthony was ‘responding to the suggestion by Frederick Douglass that Black male enfranchisement was a more urgent issue than women’s suffrage.’
That is, contra Davis, Lewis suggests that Anthony ‘only’ put white women ahead of Blacks because Douglass threatened to put Black men ahead of white women.
Notably omitted in Lewis’ brief analysis of this moment is that for Anthony to insist in this way on white women’s suffrage over that of Black men, she must both have accepted that white men are superior to Black men (the ‘realist’ position defined above), and that men are superior to women (in that Anthony could not support Black women in seeking to get the vote, because this would de facto mean that Black men would have to get the vote, too; that is, Anthony accepts the patriarchal status quo if she cannot get on board with Black men and all women getting the vote – even as she tries to challenge it).
Furthermore, that Lewis dresses up Anthony’s argument for white women’s suffrage as a bit of tit for tat with Douglass demonstrates that for Lewis (as the interpreter of history) and for Anthony (as the historical agent), the Black man functions as a threat. That is, there is no seeking of alliances when push comes to shove, but only competition between these ‘minority’ groups.
We might say that the onus is on Douglass as a man (regardless of his race) to get on board with Anthony – and surely there is some (qualified) legitimacy in this claim.
However, this legitimacy is arguably qualified indeed, because while we should charge Douglass with overlooking the suffrage of Black women as he seeks the suffrage of Black men, Douglass is not really in a position to help Anthony because he is Black.
For, as a Black man, Douglass is not just in a perceived ‘inferior’ position to Anthony within the hierarchical American system, but also, even though now a ‘free’ man, Douglass is still not considered human (or not ‘as human’) as Anthony.
In some ways Douglass ‘cannot,’ therefore, call for the inclusion of white women as political/voting subjects within the USA.
I place ‘cannot’ in scare quotes because Douglass did, contra Lewis, support the cause of women’s suffrage until his death in 1895 (‘right is of no sex, truth is of no color’). However, his support of women’s suffrage was also in some senses impossible – and not just because to do so would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white men. Rather, and more specifically, it would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white women, who might well see in such an otherwise well-meaning gesture a threat to their position within society.
That is, a Black man cannot in effect help a white woman, since to do so would involve him telling a white man what to do (you should give the vote to white women, Black men, and Black women – which is not to mention people of other races within the USA). A Black man can only, in this sense, represent his own race (and as mentioned it is indeed a flaw in Douglass’ reasoning that he does/did not lobby for the suffrage of Black women, at least at certain points in his career).
Meanwhile, the obverse is not the case; a white woman can indeed (more easily?) lobby for Black men (and women) – and yet at a crucial moment this did not take place.
But more to the point, when Lewis casts Anthony’s rejection of Douglass as a bit of historical tit for tat (he wasn’t going to help her, so she didn’t help him), it denies the fact that Douglass, as a Black man and thus as a ‘non-human,’ was not necessarily in a position to help Anthony, as a ‘human.’
For, how can a human (Anthony) recognise help from and equality with a non-human (Douglass) without destroying the way in which the humanity of the one is dependent on the non-humanity of the other?
Put differently, Anthony might be a ‘prize object,’ but Douglass, as a former slave, is merely an abject (someone ‘cast out,’ from the Latin ab- + jacere = ‘thrown away’).
For Anthony to refuse to help Douglass, then, because Douglass did not help Anthony, is in some senses to misunderstand what Blackness means and how antiblackness works – and it is verily to play into the hands of white supremacy when one sacrifices Blackness for the furtherance of whiteness.
The proof of this difference in power between Anthony and Douglass is, as it were, in the pudding – in that while Black men were in principle given the right to vote in 1870 through the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment (which stated that ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ could not be a barrier to voting), and while women were only given the vote in 1920 following the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment saw swathes of Blacks being denied suffrage on account of taxation, illiteracy, ‘grandfather clauses’ and other discriminatory procedures, right up until 1965 (although it could be argued that such measures continue in various forms until the present day).
That is, while Douglass tried to make a claim for Black male suffrage, and while Anthony made a counter-claim for white women’s suffrage, the history of Jim Crow would suggest that Blackness is a greater hindrance to empowerment in the USA than is femininity (but this is not to suggest that the history of women’s suffrage is easier or plain-sailing).
By this token, we might suggest that it is not the job of the most disempowered/the abject to help the more empowered (‘objects’) in their pursuit of more power – but that it is the job of the more empowered (here, an object) to help the more disempowered (here, an abject) to gain some power.
To apply this dynamic to the contemporary moment: it is not for Blacks to support an All Lives Matter movement, in that it is not for Blacks to march with whites who are seeking a reaffirmation of their own importance in contemporary society. However, it is for non-Blacks to support Blacks at this moment in time. It is for whites and other non-Blacks to march with Blacks. It is for whites to fight for the safety and inclusion of Blacks in an otherwise antiblack society.
However, what seems to be happening at this moment in time – and as perhaps is reflected in Booksmart – is a quasi-repetition of history: Black Lives Matter is being cast aside (abjected) for the restitution of white women as the prize object of capitalist modernity.
This is a thorny issue, and its expression is perhaps unconscious, while also emerging in subtle and not-obvious ways. However, we can see how this is so both in Lewis’ article and in a recent essay co-authored by Diane Negra and Julia Leyda on the topic.
Race and sex
In short, both pieces of writing boil down to suggesting that now that white men are using the term Karen to describe any white woman (but most typically a white woman ‘of a certain age’) who makes complaints and is unruly, the term has been co-opted away from its critical potential and now is being used to reinforce patriarchal values.
In some ways, this charge is a valid one – and it is a charge that I can and must level at myself (as a nominally cis-gendered, white male) as I consider my own unconscious biases, prejudices and so on. For, indeed, perhaps the term has now become in some quarters a kind of term used by male chauvinists to put down white women.
But I am not sure that this ‘mis-use’ of the term means that its initial point of critique, namely that white supremacy can be as present in white women as it can be in white men, is worth abandoning because white men now use the term against white women.
Having gone through a history and present of the Karen meme, starting as mentioned with Susan B. Anthony, Lewis makes an interesting turn when she distances herself from that history on the basis of nationality.
I quote a full paragraph, in which Lewis mentions how in the UK there was no case history like that of Emmett Till, a young Black man killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman. As follows:
The potency of the Karen mythology is yet more proof that the internet “speaks American.” Here in Britain, there is no direct equivalent of the Till case, and voting rights were never restricted on racial lines. The big splits in the British suffrage movement were between violent and nonviolent tactics, and on whether men under 30 should receive the vote before women. Yet British newspapers have rushed to explain the Karen meme to their readers, because Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—the prime sites for Karen-spotting—are widely used in this country. (In fact, the Karen discussion has spread throughout the English-speaking internet, reaching as far as New Zealand.)
There is a confusion here in that Lewis initially asserts that the internet ‘speaks American.’ However, she then makes a clear distinction between the USA and the UK (which comes relatively close to asserting that there is no racism in the UK, in part because the UK does not supposedly have a history of slavery), before reaffirming that the internet is ‘American’ (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are widely used in the UK), before then suggesting that the internet does not speak ‘American,’ but rather that it is English-speaking, and finally registering some surprise (via the emphatic ‘as far as’) that the Karen meme is known and repeated in New Zealand.
The confusion is created by the zigzagging between positions here. The internet speaks American, but British people don’t speak American, except that they do speak American (and maybe even New Zealanders also speak American).
The internet is in some respects without geographical boundaries; firewalls, geoblocking, some censorship issues and linguistic abilities aside, one can (especially if one has the ingenuity to use a VPN) access and engage with the internet from anywhere with a computer, phone line and modem.
That is, it is no surprise that the Karen meme reaches New Zealand, because the Karen meme is not (just) ‘American,’ but on the internet. That it is presented as surprising that someone in far-flung New Zealand might have encountered the Karen meme suggests that Lewis – who otherwise expresses great familiarity with relatively specialised feeds on Reddit – does not really comprehend the internet.
In short, the internet in many respects breaks down national boundaries. And so for Lewis to resurrect those national boundaries involves a sleight of hand that serves to disavow how the Karen meme might apply to someone in or from the UK.
Lewis makes as much clear when she goes on to say that ‘[a]t some point… the particular American history behind Karen got lost’ – another suggestion that the point made in the most recent spate of Karen-outings do not apply to anyone in the UK, and that women like Amy Cooper are unique to the USA.
However, to suggest (or even loosely to imply) that racism, white supremacy and systemic imbalances of power along race lines are non-existent in the UK, such that they appear not to merit mention in Lewis’ argument, is simply false. The UK has its own fair share of issues of racism, as numerous authors, from the afore-mentioned Hazel V. Carby through to Reni Eddo-Lodge can attest.
What is more, while the USA had slavery within its own borders, as an imperial nation the UK outsourced its racist practices, running plantations perhaps not on its own shores, but across the rest of its vast Empire, and from which Empire the homeland benefitted enormously (to the tune of untold, unimaginable sums of money).
Lewis is surely correct to identify that white men calling white women Karen is a mis-use of the term – and that mis-use is surely worth critiquing. But the point can be as simply made as that: the Karen meme (at least in its most well-known iteration) had an initially and ongoing valid point of critique, namely to expose white supremacy/antiblackness, but that it can also be used as a tool for sexism.
To invoke a slightly twisted history of national specificity and problematic disavowals, though, suggests not a search for solidarity across what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the color line,’ as progressive white women join forces with Black men and women alike to combat patriarchy (which in its most ‘simple’ guise is both sexist and racist), but rather a desire to shift focus away from issues of race and to place them once again on to issues of sex.
(In her book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, Lewis achieves a similar sleight of hand. While the overwhelming majority of her examples are white, she does report an encounter with two black feminists, who over coffee explain to Lewis that her commissioning work as a journalistic editor ‘was leaving out women of colour.’ Lewis does admit that in this encounter she became ‘defensive, when I should have simply done them the courtesy of listening’ – before then dismissing the complaints of the women as ‘driven by jealousy, or that heady mix of sadism and self-righteousness which characterises a moral crusade.’ That is, Lewis says not that she does or did listen – which she would only have done out of courtesy, but that she should have listened to them but did not, before then confirming as much when she dismisses the critique as being a case of envy.)
In other words, while Black Lives Matter rages, Lewis’ article comes across as an attempt to remind us not only that white women can be and are victims, too, but that they are perhaps the ‘real’ victims, with the article saying that of course the history of race is important, but that the history of sexism is even more pernicious.
And yet, I might follow in the line of numerous influential thinkers – scholars including but not limited to Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Winter, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Jared Sexton, Katherine McKittrick, Frank B. Wilderson III, Rizvana Bradley and Calvin L. Warren – to suggest that antiblackness is the structuring antagonism (to use Wilderson’s term) upon which modernity is built.
And that modernity may well ‘speak American,’ but it is not American alone (and there is a strong historical reason why American people speak English). Indeed, modernity is not American, but global. And by virtue of being global, it affects us all – even the people in ‘far-flung’ New Zealand (far-flung for whom?).
The basic premise of antiblackness has already been outlined above: it is the treatment of non-whites, but perhaps especially Blacks, as not-quite or not-even human. It is to be treated as abject, or discarded – much as Lewis invokes a racial history of the racist roots of Karen, only to discard it, and much as Lewis claims to listen to her two black female critics, only to discard them and their feedback.
Towards the end of her article, Lewis draws upon Ta-Nehisi Coates, in particular his essay ‘The Great Schism,’ in order to remind us that Anthony’s fellow suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké, were let down by abolitionists for having fought for the end of slavery, only for that not to lead to any progress in the pursuit of women’s suffrage. Or, as Coates puts it in relation to Stanton and Anthony, ‘the two spent much of their early careers very much devoted to the cause of black people, and took their share of abuse for it.’
Grimké ‘credited abolition with helping awaken her to the persistent oppression of women,’ while Frederick Douglass eventually reconciled with Anthony and Stanton, ‘singling out Stanton, in particular, for making him a “Woman’s Rights Man.”‘
That is, Coates attempts to understand the lack of solidarity between Anthony and Douglass, a fact to which Lewis appeals in defence of her argument (if Coates can feel solidarity with Susan B. Anthony, then so should Blacks today feel solidarity with Helen Lewis).
However, where Coates does indeed ‘forgive’/condone/contextualise the white supremacy of Anthony, Lewis seemingly expects the same forgiveness and condonement, but without offering anything in return. For, while Anthony did spend years ‘devoted to the cause of black people,’ Lewis in this article and in her interaction with Black women journalists in her book only seems to pay lip service to that cause as a means to bring us back to the real cause: the fight against sexism.
It is not that sexism is unreal; sexism is very real and must be addressed – but to use sexism as a tool not to address racism is not progressive, and even if it does not come across fully as a (probably unconscious) white supremacist manoeuvre, it can still come across as ‘tone deaf,’ especially at a moment when Black Lives Matter is attempting (and needing) to gather momentum in the USA and globally.
Now, Coates is most famous for his essay ‘The Case for Reparations,’ which is reproduced in his book, We Were Eight Years in Power. That particular article outlines how and why contemporary American wealth is built upon the racialised exploitation of Black slaves – as well as outlining a particular and overlooked moment of violence in the history of the USA, namely the Tulsa race massacre that took place in 1921.
We shall return to ‘The Case for Reparations’ in the face of consumer society imminently, but it might also be worth noting that the article inspired Damon Lindelof to set his highly regarded ‘adaptation’ of Watchmen partially in Tulsa in 1921 – exploring the race massacre and its afterlives throughout the show.
I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, antiblack oppression leads to a Black protest in that show, where a young boy kills a police officer by firing a gun at him at point blank range. It is ironic, then, that during a pro-Black lives protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it was not a young Black who shot a (white?) police officer, but a young white boy who shot three protestors, killing two of them.
That is, while Watchmen takes a moment to depict Black vengeance, the reality is that whites continue to enact violence on Blacks and their supporters.
And the second reason I mention this is that allegedly Trump held his Juneteenth Rally in Tulsa as an antagonistic reminder of the race massacre; that is, Trump took the event to Tulsa in order to intimidate Black (democratic) Americans regarding how history might repeat itself (even as the history of that massacre repeats itself constantly – with every massacre of an innocent Black American).
If Trump took his Juneteenth Rally to Tulsa in order to antagonise his opponents about the racial history of the place, then Trump’s call to pardon Susan B. Anthony in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election can also be read as an attempt to appeal to a certain kind of feminist voter, specifically a white feminist voter.
Even as Anthony herself might roll in her grave at the mere thought of Trump using her spirit to win votes (and as the Susan B. Anthony Museum rejected Trump’s pardon), the move by Trump does convey the way in which she and he both – as people linked to the Karen meme, including by Lewis – use whiteness, or more specifically antiblackness, to further their own, white cause.
Put differently, while Lewis and Negra/Leyda (to whom I shall turn imminently) recognise but then obfuscate (if not deny) the racial politics of the Karen meme, Trump himself (the ‘ultimate Karen,’ as Lewis acknowledges) and Anthony (as a figure heavily invoked in Lewis’ article on Karen) are indeed Karens in a struggle that has at its core not sex, but race.
From slavery to consumerism
However, like Lewis, Negra and Leyda seek in their essay to highlight how the Karen meme is not just about race, but also and perhaps more about sex. In particular, they write that
Karen is doing particularly important work to mark an interface between (actual or attributed middle-class) white femininity and individuals/communities of color in a period in which everyday situational racisms are being increasingly called to account. She summons a boundary point between recidivist whiteness and “wokeness” at a time when many white people are both becoming more sensitized to racist micro-aggressions and put on alert to threatening breaches of public decorum. And it is apparent that Karen’s utility has heightened relevance now, in a pandemic moment marked by the charged nature of commercial (and other social) spaces. Less frequently noticed, however, may be her role in conservatively reinforcing prohibitions on white female agency in an arena in which that agency has historically been significant – that of goods and services/shopping.
Negra and Leyda then spend the remainder of their essay more or less explaining how frustrating it is to engage in consumer complaints in the contemporary age: customer service is on the wane, contacting someone who can actually help resolve a complaint is increasingly inaccessible, and so on.
It is not necessarily clear how and why white women engage in customer complaints more than any other demographic – although Negra and Leyda seem to suggest that it is because they have the time to do so.
Since apparently no one else has to or can, then, it would seem that the ‘Karen’ as they define them is in fact doing the world a favour, because they are the only demographic that can stand up for consumer rights in a time when those rights are being eroded.
In the face of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more, and given how these killings connect both with the calling of the cops by Amy Cooper (the implication for Christian Cooper is that his life is in danger, even as Amy Cooper fears for hers, because once the cops arrive, they might well shoot him), and given how these killings connect with the armed defence of property that we saw via the McCloskeys (notably also used antagonistically at the RNC to demonstrate that the upcoming US election is not about sex but race), to sit on a customer service complaint line seems small beer at best.
To imply that to do so is in fact not the act of a Karen but in fact doing the world a favour likewise begins to seem ‘tone deaf.’
Indeed, Negra and Leyda quote Sara Ahmed, who herself reports ‘a conversation with an Indigenous woman academic,’ who says the following:
the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.
That is, Negra and Leyda situate complaint as a political act, even as complaint has swiftly become more of a capitalist/consumerist act by the time that they discuss waiting on endless phone lines in order to complain about customer service.
More than this, to equate sitting on a customer service line to ‘surviving the violence of colonial occupation’ seems in somewhat poor taste, with Ahmed’s example being staged as a matter of survival, something that also applies today to Black Lives Matter… but something that really does not apply to sitting on a customer service phone line at all.
Negra and Leyda conclude by suggesting that the Karen ‘seems to seek an ontological reassurance that consumer capitalism is on her side (and on the side of whiteness). We suggest it is productive to consider the sources of “Karen’s” misdirected anger.’
Or, put differently Negra and Leyda do usefully posit in the end that Karen does indeed want to know that their sense of being in the world (Karen’s ontology) is not under threat – and that this sense of being rests in large part on Karen’s (unthinking) whiteness.
But while in some senses it might be ‘productive’ to know that the ‘misdirected anger’ of Karens as they complain about the low quality of customer service stems from a sense of disempowerment as complaining about shopping becomes increasingly difficult in the contemporary age, this again seems to miss the mark of engaging with white supremacy.
This is not to mention how, even if white women (of a certain age) are the ones who purportedly have the time to sit in endless call queues to get through to an exploited customer service worker (who might well be non-white), this experience is not confined to white women at all – and indeed everyone who wants to complain about crappy service has to go through the same process, regardless of age, race or sex.
That is, everyone is disempowered as a consumer in the contemporary moment, and yet Negra and Leyda seem to make a special case that the white woman (of a certain age) is ‘especially’ disempowered, or disempowered in such a fashion that it requires a special explanation.
And yet, forasmuch as being treated poorly as a consumer is in effect universal, so is equally universal the concomitant ‘ontological’ disruption. And yet, it is Karen alone who apparently feels the need to be reassured against this disruption, a singleness of thought that seeks to reduce to nil the other, more dangerous ontological disruptions taking place at the moment, and which in its very singleness reaffirms that Karen must be a ‘prize object’ in capitalist modernity.
(In this blacklight, the recently acclaimed Systemsprenger/System Crasher, Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019, can be seen as a working example of the tantrums that are induced when the white woman does not get her way. The film also seems to endorse the unruliness of its central character, the out-of-control 9-year old Benni, played remarkably by Helena Zengel, since the scenario sees her forgiven repeatedly by all in the film for her appalling behaviour, including bizarre sequences when a care worker, Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch, allows this dangerous child to play with his own children, before then running after Benni to make sure that she is okay, even though Benni has just threatened the life of Micha’s own child. That Micha’s child is mixed race, since he is married to an Iranian-German, Elli, played by Maryam Zaree, only furthers the idea that the white girl, Benni, is indeed the ‘prize object,’ who supersedes in importance all of the other children that surround her, even as she hospitalises many of them. Perhaps this is how fascism in its most hideous form comes truly to erupt into our world…)
And yet, to return to Karen’s need for ontological reassurance, which supposedly is at the base of Amy Cooper’s desire to call the cops on Christian Cooper: the ontological disruption that causes it shrinks into nothing when we understand that to be a Black American (if not a Black in many parts of the world) is constantly to experience what Calvin L. Warren has defined as ontological terror.
That is, while Karen needs reassurance because her ontology has been disrupted – by having to wait in line just like everyone else in order to make a complaint and/or because her white supremacy and/or consumerist tendencies have been pointed out to her – the Black American (and many other Blacks around the world) have no such luxury.
Or rather, such things are the least of their worries – as being pulled over by the police, going for a jog and/or wearing a hoodie might be reason enough for a cop to ***kill*** you.
Perhaps Amy Cooper is indeed upset about call waiting times, and perhaps this does help to explain where she is coming from when she attempts to set the cops on Christian Cooper. But the imbalance between these two ontologies is almost unfathomable; to try to balance them seems to me misguided; to appropriate the language of ‘survival’ in the face of histories of colonialism seems to me (precisely) inappropriate (it is an in-appropriation).
Negra and Leyda quote Audre Lorde’s influential essay, ‘The Uses of Anger,’ and yet they seem to pay little heed to Lorde’s actual words when she writes that
Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anguish at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a whole world out there that takes for granted our lack of humanness, that hates our very existence, outside of its service.
For white women to claim equivalence to this experience – in effect, to deny race – is to undermine and to demean the argument of those People of Colour, especially Women of Colour; it is to repeat the silencing that Lewis by her own admission enacted on the two black journalists who confronted her; and it is not to listen to what the major proponents of the Karen meme are trying to say.
As per Booksmart, white supremacy can be at work in even light-hearted, fun and ‘progressive’ movies, as well as in everyday moments in life. Sexism is also regularly at work; to deny one in order to put forward the other, especially when doing so results in an erasure of race and a repetition of the silencing of non-whites, especially Blacks, is counter-productive.
I have to check my own privileges, as well as to acknowledge my own propensity for unthinking sexism and racism. However, I am wary that to use sexism against racism is not going to take the world where we need to go; Anthony, Douglass and others have all made mistakes along these lines. But it is time to not repeat these same mistakes and for anti-racist and anti-sexist activists and sentiments to be working in concert in order to overthrow an antiblack world order.
Remembering the way in which Karen can ask us productively to address unthinking white supremacy, rather than trying to deny it, excuse it, or indeed to morph it into a renewed sense of (uniquely) white victimhood, seems to me a hopeful path to follow. To enjoy Booksmart and yet to check its blindspots equally seems to me a hopeful path to follow.
As Coates might say, ‘I invite the professionals to fill in the gaps here — both in terms of actual facts and context.’
However, I hope that this blog does go some way to enabling a more progressive, holistic and/or ‘intersectional’ approach to key issues that today have our world hanging in a precarious balance…