For a long while, I would cringe every time I came across the “Karen” meme: Some white woman threatening to call the police on Black people going about their business. It isn’t fair, I would tell myself, to be placed automatically — because I’m a middle-class White woman who is also named Karen — in a box among folks performing ugly, racist acts. Like the “Central Park Karen,” who called the cops on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper. Like the “Chipotle Parking Lot Karen,” who pulled a gun on a Black mother and her daughter because they were in her space. Both women, both white. Like me.

But what if we used the Karen meme as a learning tool to show us white folks something about how racist stereotyping works? In what can feel like an undeserved reversal, the dynamics of racial stereotyping have now, with justification, been turned on me. Smart, kind, and well-intentioned as I may be, none of that matters when I’m pinioned by this meme. What matters is simply the color of my skin.

And yet doesn’t it say something about my sense of entitlement (“I don’t deserve this, it isn’t fair”) that this simple exercise can provoke discomfort, defensiveness, and distress? I am not being arrested as an intruder as I fumble for my key at my own front door. I am not being shot in the back as I reach into my pocket for my phone or a packet of Skittles. There is no comparison between my momentary distress and all that Black Americans experience on a daily basis.

So yes, I’m being identified, correctly, as white. It’s been one of my most urgent life-questions to come to understand what being white in America means.

In 1981, while working to establish a Women’s Studies program at SUNY Oswego, I attended a conference hosted by the National Women’s Studies Association called “Women Confront Racism,” an experience that would change my life. Audre Lorde, writer, feminist, and civil rights activist, delivered the keynote address, and I remember being rooted to my seat, hearing in her eloquent voice a profound call to become my best and strongest self. Throughout the conference, challenged at my deepest levels to face the realities of racism without turning away, I realized I was being shaken loose from a condition that I think whites are born into in this culture, a condition of toxic innocence.

Here’s something of what I think toxic innocence looks like. The illusion that we White folks are the center of the universe and that our experience constitutes the standard for humanity. The illusion – based on the belief that we are not raced — that we are unsullied by racism, and that racism is therefore “their” problem, not ours. The illusion that, since “they” are racialized Others, while we are human beings, the experiences of people of Color are secondary and non-representative, and therefore not worth our attention.

These illusions were not revealed to me all at once in 1981. But what I was able to sense was that I was being given an extraordinary privilege: the opportunity to question and ultimately leave behind an outmoded, damaging world view, one completely unable to reflect the beauties and possibilities of our shared human experience. And when I left that conference, I’d made a commitment that has remained with me ever since: to read and listen to the voices of people of color, to learn how racism has impacted our country’s history, to honor the long and hard-fought resistance to racial injustice (waged by some whites as well as by people of color), and to become part of that resistance myself.

Over the years, as I developed and learned to incorporate a justice pedagogy into my teaching, I came to realize that when a Karen might be staring back at you, it’s imperative to continue looking at the realities in the mirror, without turning away.

Dr. Karen Elias is retired after teaching college for over 40 years and now lives in Lock Haven where she is working on using her writing in the service of activism.

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