By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson
We’ve all met her. That particular kind of white woman who exhibits deplorable, antisocial behaviors that range from passive aggressive entitlement to outright hostility. A “Karen.”
If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you’ve likely had to deal with a “Nightmare of Karens” — that’s the proper collective noun, I’m told. If you’re a person of color, you may have experienced a version of the dog-walker-bird-watcher incident, where a white woman falsely told the 911 operator that a black man was threatening her life because he asked her to leash her dog. Amy Cooper is facing misdemeanor charges for calling in that false report. Now, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is trying to take the punishment of such behavior a step further.
On July 7th, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced the “CAREN Act” (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies), which would criminalize the kinds of racially-based 911 calls for which white women are earning the label “Karen” on social media. While it is already illegal in California to call in false reports to police, this initiative would designate such calls as hate crimes.
There are some deep problems with this tactic, aside from the impracticality of determining whether a 911 call is motivated solely by racial animus. It is ironic that the movement for racial justice on the one hand calls for the defunding of police in favor of diversionary, restorative alternatives, and on the other hand draws up legislation to enhance police and prosecutorial power for race-based instances of social conflict. If the CAREN Act passes, “Karen” would become literally synonymous with “criminal.” This will only perpetuate the stigmatization of the name Karen, as well as our unfounded and destructive reliance on the criminal justice system’s punitive, rather than restorative, solutions to societal problems.
The CAREN act is the legal culmination of what has been a grass-roots social response to a certain pattern of antisocial behavior, a response defined by the label “Karen.” So to get at what’s wrong with the CAREN act, we need to talk about the impulse to name it that in the first place.
Of all the battles I could fight, why this one? Why defend the so-called Karens of the world? Let me first say that this is not the most important battle, not the most important issue of our current moment. That’s why the bulk of my journalism work focuses on criminal justice reform (see my interviews for Crimestory.com, and my Facebook Watch show, The Truth About True Crime). It’s why I’ve recently joined the board of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice. I feel deep compassion for those who have suffered racial injustice ― many of them are my close friends in the innocence community. But my compassion doesn’t end there. And I don’t think yours should either. It should extend even to the people who purposefully or inadvertently perpetuate racial injustice.
My problem with the label “Karen” is similar to my problem with the label “criminal” or “felon” or “thug,” or even “sex offender.” These terms collapse the identity of an individual based on their behavior ― often on one isolated example of their worst behavior, which is sometimes misperceived or taken out of context. As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has said, “each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” Stevenson has fought for mercy for men on death row who have committed horrible crimes. Reducing the identities of these men to “killer” or “rapist” erases everything else about them. Refusing to label them that way doesn’t make their crimes less atrocious, nor does it mean we should work with less urgency to prevent rape and murder. It means that we still acknowledge their humanity, in spite of their crimes, creating the possibility for redemption.
When a white woman threatens to call the police on a person of color for a perceived wrong, as this San Francisco woman did to James Juanillo, there is the real possibility that she is instigating a chain of events that ends with deadly violence. The brunt of that potential injustice derives from the cop wielding the gun (or the knee,) but the woman making the call nonetheless bears some responsibility. This has been true since Emmett Till and before.
So don’t we need to call these white women something? One argument in favor of a label like “Karen” is that it identifies a very specific set of social behaviors, and therefore makes those behaviors easier to recognize, allowing white people to better avoid those behaviors, and black people to more easily document the injustices they suffer. One counter-argument is the existence of incidents like this one, where a black social media provacateur harrasses a white woman clearly terrified that he’s about to ruin her life for an alleged wrong that didn’t make it on camera.
The consequences for those accused of weaponizing their white femininity already bear an unnerving resemblance to the punishments meted out by our criminal justice system, in that they are often disproportionate, vindictive, and delivered with shocking disregard for due process. We must acknowledge that online ostracism and losing one’s livelihood are not the same as criminal fines and jail time, although the CAREN Act could change that.
However cathartic it might feel to shove someone into an identity box based on an example of their behavior, and to do so in a way that broadly indicts a whole swath of society (white, middle-aged women), that doesn’t make it a productive method for curbing those offending behaviors. Instead, it makes people defensive. In short: if you want fewer incidents of racial entitlement in the world, we need to reject the impulse to stigmatize people while remaining critical of anti-social and racist behavior.
We already know that labeling and ostracizing people isn’t effective at deterring antisocial behavior and rehabilitating offenders. Upping the ante by turning what is already a crime ― filing a false police report ― into a nebulous hate crime is continuing to move in the wrong direction. What does work is empathy. We should be trying to understand what motivates this behavior, no matter how flawed or harmful it might be. And the more harmful the behavior is, the greater the urgency on us to try to understand the motivation behind it.
We should always be skeptical when our preferred response to a negative behavior is the most cathartic, the easiest, the most reductive, and the most indulgent of our impulse towards tribal judgement and vindictive punishment. Those qualities rarely lead to effective social change. But they do change us as we engage in them, weakening our empathy and compassion. And by labeling people, we exhibit an entitlement ourselves to judge, to know them wholly based on an often skewed snippet of their life. You can’t fight entitlement with entitlement.
Our response to anti-social behavior, from rude comments to brutal crimes, would ideally function to ensure the public safety, deter such actions, rehabilitate those who commit them, and restore the harms done to victims and the fabric of society. But all too often, our response — and our system of mass incarceration is the prime example — does a middling job of ensuring the public safety and deterring crime, a terrible job of rehabilitating perpetrators, and virtually no work at all towards restoring victims. Meanwhile, it adds in a wholly unnecessary and counterproductive element: retribution. We should be striving to strip such vengeance from our response to anti-social behavior, whether we’re talking about killers or those whom many of us so gleefully label “Karen.”
And that’s ultimately where the heart of my objection lies. There is little reason to believe that the “Karen” label and the CAREN Act are effective forms of deterrence, rehabilitation, or restoration. What they are effective at is vengeance and ostracism, neither of which teach us anything about how to form a more harmonious society.
I went to get my blood drawn the other day, and the nurse, who spends her days during this pandemic working on the front lines, risking exposure to COVID to help people get tested and stay healthy, introduced herself to me by saying, “Hi, I’m Karen. It’s unfortunate, I know.”
I don’t know anything about this particular Karen, except that she was kind to me and that she’s doing a noble job. She shouldn’t have to apologize for her own name, much less share it with a newly-minted hate crime.