I really don’t care anymore what they call me. I was a shrinking violet as a child and speaking up for myself was agony. Having any attention called to myself at all was agony. I’ll never forget when we moved to a new neighborhood and my Mom made me walk next door to where this big gang of kids was hanging out and introduce myself. I remember the long walk across these people’s yard and the group of kids all stopping what they were discussing and staring at me the whole way there. I don’t remember the moment when I said, “Hi, my name is…” or even what happened afterwards.

As a child I was humiliated when my Mom spoke up in restaurants if her food was underdone or not to her liking. If she saw something wrong she never hesitated to speak up. But she did that in lots of ways, not just ones we might see as petty. She didn’t let people treat her with disrespect. She didn’t let her boss go on sexually harassing her. She didn’t let the smirking manager at the auto shop overcharge her for a repair because he thought she didn’t know any better. And even though it mortified me at the time and when I was with her I would pray that nothing went wrong so that she wouldn’t “make a scene,” now I admire her. Because even though I have learned to be way more assertive than I was as a child, I do it in spite of still being terrified. Speaking up does not come naturally to me.

What’s annoying is that the term is all over the map semantically. It could mean a spoiled princess type who demands special privileges or services in a restaurant. Or it could mean the only customer who complains when a business is legitimately screwing over a whole bunch of customers. There’s a black comedian whose name I can’t remember right now who has an anecdote about a time he was absolutely furious about a situation he was in where a business had screwed things up and he and a bunch of others were waiting and waiting. He said that he was just hoping in his mind that a certain kind of white woman would come along (one he might have called a “Karen”) because he knew she would allow this to go on without complaining.

On the other hand, we’ve now started calling white women “Karen” if they call the police on black people for petty or no reason. To me this is a very different ballgame. It’s an escalation to a way too powerful solution for what is likely something you could just chat with someone about. Some say this may even endanger black men by bringing the police in. We need to have a different term for this person. That is crossing a whole other line.

So if the zeitgeist chooses one more all-purpose and semantically ever-shifting word to bash us for speaking up, I’m going to look at the circumstances before I judge anyone.

Linguist, philosopher, lover of history, wordhound, 21 year New Yorker, searching for meaning in the universe

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