I wanted you to know that I got your email. Yours, your husband’s, your brother’s and your best friend’s. All were vexed at my recent evocation of the meme that uses your name as shorthand for a certain type of white woman: rude, entitled and presuming to police African American lives.
“I am OFFENDED,” wrote Jim, whose Karen is the wife of his priest. “It is reprehensible,” wrote Robert, whose Karen is his daughter.
And an actual Karen asked, “How would you read it if ‘Leonard’ was used to mean pedophile?”
Karen, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it much. But I’m also pretty sure I wouldn’t give it a lot of thought. After all, there are more important things to be upset about. Like, say, pedophiles.
I’d hardly be the first person — and neither are you — whose name was a synonym for something objectionable. Former Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney and the great comic actor Richard Wayne Van Dyke both go by a nickname that connotes the male sexual organ or a very unpleasant man. Singer John Legend and comedian John Oliver share a name the dictionary defines as a toilet or a man who patronizes a prostitute. And I’d imagine Black boxer Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and Black radio host Tom Joyner do not particularly enjoy being called out in public by their nieces and nephews.
Yet somehow, they all manage to live with it.
Predictably, Karen, one of your defenders suggested white people retaliate by adopting a “Black” name (he suggested Lakeisha) as a meme for things they find disagreeable in Black women. They’re welcome to try — it’s a free country — but I can guarantee it won’t work out well for them. That’s because of something I call the “Goliath Principle” after a quote from former NBA player Wilt Chamberlain: “Everybody roots for David,” said Chamberlain, who stood 7′1″ and weighed 250 pounds. “Nobody roots for Goliath.”
Karen, that’s not just sports, it’s life. The Goliath Principle is why we empathize with secretaries over supervisors and maids over millionaires, why a tiny woman decking a brawny man makes you laugh, but a brawny man decking a tiny woman is infuriating. Human nature dictates that we side with little over big, weak over strong, with those power is wielded upon over those who wield power. So the white person who attempted to meme “Lakeisha” would only reveal himself as a thin-skinned bully who had missed the point entirely.
The point being power, and the lack thereof. A “Karen” does something a Lakeisha simply cannot. She weaponizes her race and gender to bully people of color in ways that are humiliating and sometimes even life-threatening. Think of Amy Cooper, shrieking desperately to a police dispatcher as if the black bird watcher Christian Cooper was killing her after he asked her to put her dog on a leash in compliance with Central Park rules.
I’m sorry, Karen, but I haven’t the luxury of prioritizing your pain above — or alongside or even slightly back of — the pain of thousands of Christian Coopers whose ability to live their lives unmolested is interdicted on a daily basis. Frankly, to have power and yet still want pity takes a bit of nerve.
For the record, I also have a Karen. She’s my cousin. I recently asked if she was offended at having her name used as a meme for women like Amy Cooper. She laughed. “Absolutely not,” she said. “I have such a thick skin that it just doesn’t bother me. It’s not me (they’re referring to).” Which strikes me as the right attitude. There’s nothing wrong with being Karen.
Just don’t be “a” Karen.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.