By Stephanie Younger •
In late January, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed during my break in between college lectures when I came across a blog post, in which the author, a white woman, claims that “Karen” memes are “misogynistic,” and make white women feel “marginalized,” and “invisible,” and as though their needs (translation: demanding labor from Black people, people of color and service workers) do not matter. The author laments of the mild inconveniences white women are met with during interactions with customer service workers, and relationships between [white] women, their [white] husbands and their [white] children. She eventually concludes her overall message by defending the “Karen’s” of the world as “[white] women [who are] trying to be seen and heard.” Weeks prior to reading that blog post, Lakisha Watson-Moore (@BougieBlackGirl) tweeted a quote from Black feminist author and poet, bell hooks, who wrote in her 1984 book entitled, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.”
“White women and Black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of Black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.”– bell hooks’ “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” (1984)
bell hooks is absolutely right that in spite of facing racism, Black men still have the power to marginalize women, and also that in spite of facing misogyny, white women still have the power to marginalize Black folks. Black men and white women alike carry a long legacy of especially being complicit in the marginalization of Black women. So, here is my stance on “Karen” memes – they’re not sexist, nor are they racist against white women.
A few weeks ago, I saw “Karen” trending on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of users were debating whether the meme was sexist, or even racist against white women. I laughed and said, “I low key really wish I saw this trending on Twitter months ago, when I read that blog post about how this is misogynistic against white women.” One week after seeing the meme trending on Twitter, I read another essay, published on The Guardian, authored by another white woman who views valid criticisms of white women’s entitlement and racism as “sexist.” Similar to the blog post that I read months earlier, the author of this article defends white women’s interest of self-preservation at the expense of Black lives.
When I talk about self-preservation, take into account the amount of white women, notably those who have gone viral for endangering Black lives, by calling the police on Black children for the sake of their own comfort. Teresa Klein, also known as “Cornerstore Caroline” has called the police on a 9-year-old Black boy and accused him of groping her, when accidentally brushed his backpack against her. Alison Ettel, also known as, “Permit Patty” has called the police on an 8-year-old Black girl who was selling water on a hot day.
Most recently, I read an article written by a Black Nigerian journalist named Karen Attiah, entitled, “The ‘Karen’ memes and jokes aren’t sexist or racist. Let a Karen explain,” which was published by The Washington Post earlier this week.
“In America, white women are often believed and protected at all costs, even at the expense of black lives. In 1955, it was a white woman who falsely accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her in Mississippi, which led to him being brutally beaten and killed. Fast-forward to recent years and we still learn about black people being arrested or assaulted because a white woman called the police unnecessarily.”– Karen Attiah’s “The ‘Karen’ memes and jokes aren’t sexist or racist. Let a Karen explain,” for The Washington Post
“Karen” memes are being smeared as offensive, by the same people who are complicit in adultification of Black children as a whole, and especially Black girls. According to a Georgetown Law study, adults believe Black girls (as young as age five) are in need of “less nurturing, protection, support and comfort,” are “more independent,” and “know more about adult topics” than white girls. To put this in perspective, adults often saw me as an “angry Black woman” at a very young age, and therefore believed that I was “less innocent and more adult-like.” The fact that the adults, in my school life earlier in my childhood, believed that I didn’t need as much nurturing or comfort as my white counterparts manifested itself, when my kindergarten teacher brought me to the principal’s office for having a panic attack during a storm at school. Throughout elementary school, many of the those I once looked up to as mentors, believed that I didn’t fit the standard of a child who needed adequate protection and support, but someone who was “more independent.” In elementary school, I frequently confided in my teacher when I was being mistreated by other students. In a previous article that was published on The Melanin Diary about the criminalization of Black girls, I wrote, “She would tell me, ‘They treat you that way because they like you.'” Many adults additionally expected me to “know more about adult topics,” as shown by that same teacher, who accused me of threatening to kill a white girl I didn’t get along with. I shared this occurrence in another previous essay where I wrote,
“In the fourth grade, two teachers went behind my back and lied to my homeroom teacher, by saying that I told a white girl, “You are so dead.”…Even though 9-year-olds don’t typically know about death threats, the teachers still expected me to be engaged in something so violent and unlawful, all because I was a Black girl.”Analysis: The Ways we Talk About Gender Stereotypes Do not Represent the Struggles we All Go Through
I never spoke of what happened in the fourth grade until I was fifteen. I never thought much of what happened when I was five until recently. However, I began to realize that adults saw me as “less innocent and more adult-like,” after I turned twelve, when they openly assumed that I was older than I was on a regular basis. In hindsight, these assumptions made me very insecure, but I couldn’t identify why adults saw me that way, despite standing at roughly five feet tall at the time and being a very late bloomer.
Being the soft-spoken person I am stems from the fears that I internalized much earlier in my childhood, of being seen as “loud,” or “angry.” The fact that I live in a world where I am seen as such never fully registered with me, until I joined a robotics team when I was fourteen. A white woman alleged that I “jerked a computer out of a [white girl’s] hands” and “acted out.” In actuality, I asked why they were refusing to let me code, and why the white girl I was working with was receiving full credit for our shared work. These disparities are only the beginning of what costs Black girls of leadership and job opportunities, and are some of the root causes of arrests and incarceration.
While white women have the privilege of simply being called a “Karen” for enforcing oppression against marginalized people, Black women and girls are dismissed as “angry,” “aggressive” and “confrontational,” for speaking up about injustices we experience. We shouldn’t be smeared as “sexist” over our critiques of white women who weaponize their privilege against us, or get defensive when we hold them accountable for doing so. The way white women experience and talk about misogyny comes from a place of privilege. Black girls are the ones being erased and marginalized, and it’s our needs that are being invalidated.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student activist and writer who advocates for womanism and the abolition of youth prisons.