Slurs are specifically intended to elicit a negative reaction.
WARNING: This essay recounts several racist and rude labels, not to insult, but to press a point about the damage done by such slurs. Confronting them may be extremely disturbing and triggering for many readers.
It seems not terribly long ago when I first encountered the word “Karen” used as an epithet. Totally bewildered, I had to punch out to Startpage (no, I do NOT use Google!) to find the meaning of what seemed an obvious slur. The various sites I glanced through each provided basically the same definition: Entitled White Middle-Aged Woman. A few sites included a belittling physical description and mentioned personal behavior characteristics.
My immediate reaction was indignation: indignation first on behalf of a relative named Karen, who in no way fit the descriptions I encountered; then on the part of an acquaintance, a Black woman, also named Karen; and finally on behalf of all the women in the world, everywhere, named Karen. I wasn’t sure if the appellation had arisen due to someone’s upsetting encounter with an actual, unpleasant individual by the name of Karen, but it seemed absolutely nuts to use a common personal name to label a cluster of disagreeable behaviors inherent within an artificially concocted subset of humanity. Nuts and rude.
For a long while I continued merely feeling indignant and disapproving whenever I encountered the pejorative term in written or spoken form. But after long, long months of seeing the tag flung about by otherwise intelligent and ethical people, I’m far past indignation. I’m miles past, “Well, that’s just rude.” I’m fully into the territory of flaming, roaring, raging, disgusted pissed-offedness.
If “Karen” is used to intentionally indicate Entitled Middle-Aged White Woman, then it is a racist, misogynistic and ageist epithet. Hardly misses any harmful categories there, does it? It is right on par with all other vile epithets. It is deliberately insulting and intended to elicit a negative emotional response in the reader/listener.
I know from personal experience what it is to be called a Wop (which, according to the person spouting the cruel nickname, was “…just a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”) It wasn’t a joke. Passive aggression never is. Racial and ageist and sexual slurs never are. If their reality disturbs you, then skip the rest of this paragraph; otherwise, let’s be brave and confront just a few of these ugly, detestable monikers, shall we? Wop, Dago. Nigger, Jigaboo. Redskin, Paleface. Chink, Gook. Krauts. Japs. Kike. Old Fart. Greaser, Spic. Slut, Ho. Camel Jockey, Raghead. Hillbilly. Faggot, Homo. Honkey. Polack.
A terribly uncomfortable, viscerally disturbing list, is it not? Nauseating to some. Agonizing for others. And those are just the ones with which I am familiar. I’m sure there are countless more.
And now, Karen.
“Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” I must have been scolded with that phrase a dozen or more times during my childhood, by parents, grown relatives, and teachers—adults who then, not caring that they were overheard, tossed out in casual conversation any number of racist, sexual and ethnic slurs. Leading by example was not a strong suit on the Pale Island* of my childhood. Then I grew up and moved to the American South, and found my jaw dropping as I heard Black teenagers affectionately call one another “Nigger”. Surely I hadn’t really just heard…! Except…why not? Hadn’t my family members often comically or affectionately bandied about the term “Wop”? “You dirty Wop,” my then-young father and his long-time friend and mentor laughingly called one another. Ah, of course: the difference. Between ourselves, and only ourselves; between us Wops, it actually was a joke, and even a term of affection. But only between ourselves. When my (now thankfully ex) husband, not of Italian American heritage, tried the same thing, it became a rank bone of contention between us.
Don’t call people names. It’s not nice…unless they share your heritage and experience. Unless they are in on the joke: the joke of taking something derogatory and evil and transmuting it into a shared experience, thereby rendering it harmless.
There is no way “Karen” can be rendered harmless. It is a vile and bitter taunt; a sneering, intentionally derisive gibe. It is a label—a label that “others”—dehumanizes–human beings, who (despite possibly having and sharing characteristics, some of them disagreeable) are, in fact, human beings. People. Women. Individuals.
Not a group. Not all the same.
It’s long past time that we all, every last one of us, stop applying these offensive sticky notes to the members of our human family.
There are, sad to say, many people who walk this sad world wearing a patina of entitlement. And those people come in every color of the human rainbow. They are male, female, and every finally-recognized gender in between. They come in all ages, all sizes, and are drawn from all walks of life.
There are, in fact, no Karens. There are only self-satisfied hypocrites who find security in labeling others in order to assure themselves of their own righteousness.
*The reference to the ” ‘Pale Island’ of my childhood” can be found in the blog post Juneteenth from June 16, 2021.