Those “let me speak to your manager” women existed long before Gen X (my generation.) My grandmother was one and she raised my Mom to be one. It was the tradition of a certain class of Upper Middle Class women (the big secret is it’s not just white women — it’s women of any race who were raised in a particular type of well to do family) to demand good service for their money and to be treated with respect.

The current Karen stereotype mixes several things together, though, that do not necessarily go together. It mixes an entitled attitude about commercial service (“Let me speak to your manager”) with the pernicious racism of reporting black people for doing innocent things in public . My Mom used to do the former, i.e., complain when food was cold or wrong, or ask to switch tables because the music was too loud, or get angry if we were left waiting for service for a long time. All of these things used to leave me mortified and wanting to crawl into a hole. I could never convince my mother that it was not fair for her to call attention to herself when we were together because that meant I was included in that attention, which I found humiliating. The result is that I never complain or demand anything unless the situation is completely egregious, like literal bugs crawling in my food or being stranded in an airport for 3 days. Even then I don’t get angry. I just point out the situation and request that it be changed.

On the other hand, my mother would never have called the police on black people having a barbecue in the park or selling lemonade or any of the dumb things white people have complained about. For a woman of her privileged background she was pretty ‘woke’ from a young age. When she was 12 in 1943 she applied and was admitted to a week long sleepaway youth conference on racial understanding, staying with her Aunt in another city and discussing racial issues with the other kids there. When she arrived, it turned out she was the only white girl there, and she said it was an eye opening experience of just a tiny taste of what it must be like for black children in white America. She went on to win awards for public speaking about civil rights, and later worked as a social worker for mostly black families in Atlanta in the 1950s, defying her supervisors who told her to call white clients “Mr. and “Mrs.” and white clients by their first names. She was the only social worker who gave her black clients the respect of “Mr. and Mrs.” titles. Which is what they deserved in the first place. I am not saying she’s a hero or that she sacrificed anything to be an ally, just that this part of her character did not jibe with the racist aspect within the current image of a Karen. She is still very progressive, but if she did not have dementia now she would still no doubt be demanding to know why her coffee was cold when it got to her.

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

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