“Karen” ceased being a mere proper noun some time ago; it’s not clear exactly when, but somewhere over the last decade it made the transition to being a pronoun to describe a person who displays a particular kind of behavior. Karens—the kinds of people whose privilege causes them to believe they have the right to invade others’ personal space, question their credentials or even their very presence and expect that they’re owed answers to their obnoxious queries—have been around forever. It’s just that we’ve only collectively agreed on how to identify them in the last half-decade or so.
But there is one thing that’s problematic about that identifier, which is that Karen, as a name, is almost exclusively given to female children, while Karen, as a pronoun, can be anybody who forgets themselves and tries to check the wrong person instead of checking their privilege. To paraphrase Too Short, all Karens ain’t women. In fact, a male Karen found his way into my voicemail on Friday evening, late enough that when my phone rang from a number I didn’t recognize, it startled my partner. We had just put our toddler down for the night.
Why, this Karen demanded to know, had I referred to Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as a Karen in a story last week? Isn’t that a prejudiced word, he asked in the 10-second message. The irony here was that the Karen in my voicemail didn’t even recognize that he was Karening, having gone from habitual linestepping to leaping over every boundary possible by looking up a phone number that in no way is associated with my work at The Root. Despite having exactly zero connection to me in the real world, this Karen actually dialed my number after hours expecting to ask me a question about something I did during my day job which, by the way, is to write words.
Not wanting to scare my fiancée, I waited until Saturday morning to give this Karen hell, dialing the number back and informing him that in no uncertain terms would reaching out to me in a personal space about anything I write ever be a sane thing to do. He wasn’t all that smart, having dialed me from a number attached to a business whose physical address in Baltimore—where I have plenty of family and friends—popped up in a quick Google search. Dude was apologetic, but wildly and still actually confused about what he had done wrong: “But I just had a simple question.” And I had a simple answer: the more you fuck around, the more you’ll find out.
But this story isn’t really about one person who stepped dangerously over a boundary by calling me about a story. It is about the kind of harassment Karens of every stripe feel they have the right to engage in. I’m under no illusion that everyone who reads The Root will agree with each, or any, of my opinions or like any story that I’ve written. Every writer here—most writers anywhere—routinely get plenty of smoke in the comments sections and on Twitter. It’s all in the game, an occupational hazard most of us accept for the privilege of having our ideas and our prose platformed.
But having written, edited and done TV work on platforms as large as ESPN and CNN and as niche as The Root for more than two decades, I’ve identified a pattern in the feedback loop: nothing makes the criticism nastier, or compels people to cross more boundaries, than when I’m writing on a platform that centers Black people and perspectives. There’s something about having The Root as a platform that has transformed my various inboxes and social media accounts into magnets for people like the guy who emailed this morning about a story I wrote on Clarence Thomas months ago, demanding: “RETRACTION? Or are you too hateful towards a black man who is a conservative?” (My response: “Hey, Jim, Fuck off.”)
These folks aren’t editors. I’d wager none of them have sat through more than one class in journalism, if that. Most of their arguments aren’t well formed, assuming I can even understand them between the unnecessary all caps, misspellings and shitty grammar. They’re not genuinely concerned or conscientious readers.
What binds them, like all Karens, is believing they’re owed something that they’re not: accountability for daring to upset their worldview by taking a senator, like Sinema or a SCOTUS justice like Thomas, or white supremacy in its various forms, to task.
Sorry, Karen, but it doesn’t matter how many inappropriate ways you find to reach out, I still don’t give a shit and I’ll be here tomorrow.