In general, I try not to comment on an ongoing surge of internet outrage. In my experience, joining the digital riot often leads to misguided and misappropriated anger. Sometimes, it’s based on flawed assumptions that mirror the same flaws as the moral panics of old.
That said, I’m going to make an exception for the recent case of the “Central Park Karen,” as she’s come to be known. I hope this is a rare exception, but I feel compelled to comment because I think perspective is important when the outrage is fresh. In addition, I have some personal experience with some stereotypical “Karens.”
To those who don’t know the story yet, consider yourselves lucky. This is one of those stories that won’t damage your faith in humanity, but it will raise some challenging questions. The basics are as follows:
- An African American man was bird-watching in Central Park
- He saw a white woman walking her dog in the same area without a leash
- He tells the woman to put her dog on a leash, as is required by law
- She gets upset and threatens to call the cops on him, claiming he’s threatening her life
- He records the incident, posts it online, and the woman is vilified
- The woman is later fired from her job
Overall, it’s a case of a woman being an asshole and potentially putting a black man’s life in danger. Sadly, around the same time this incident unfolded, a black man was killed while being subdued by police in Minneapolis. She might not have realized how dangerous it was for her to threaten this man in such a manner, but it’s still a dick move. She could’ve gotten him killed or seriously hurt over a goddamn leash law.
In this case, the facts are hard to dispute. The whole incident was captured on video. There’s no ambiguity on who was being the asshole here. It has become the ultimate manifestation of a stereotypical “Karen.” For those not familiar with this term, it’s an internet meme turned slur towards a certain type of woman. Here’s a quick rundown of those traits by Wikipedia.
The Karen archetype carries several stereotypes that are common to “basic white women”; the most notable is the stereotype that a Karen will demand to “speak with the manager” of a hypothetical service provider. Further common stereotypes associated with the Karen pejorative include anti-vaccination beliefs, racism against black people, use of Facebook and a bob haircut with blonde highlights—pictures of Kate Gosselin during the airing of Kate Plus 8 were used in earlier memes about a “can-I-speak-to-your-manager haircut”, and continue to be used in Karen memes—engagement in multi-level marketing schemes, and Facebook posts sharing trite motivational messages.
With respect to this incident, the woman in question, whose name I won’t use out of privacy concerns, epitomized one too many of these traits. She acted like the law didn’t apply to her and threatened an innocent person of color, likely knowing that she had an advantage by being a white woman. In watching the video, it’s hard to much have sympathy for her.
I say that as someone with some admitted bias. That’s because I’ve had multiple jobs in the past in which I’ve encountered quite a few “Karens.” In fact, every job I’ve had has resulted in at least one encounter with someone who fits one too many traits of this stereotype.
When I worked at a fast food restaurant, I had Karen yell at me for trying to clean parts of a nearby table while her family was still eating.
When I worked at a software company, I had to respond to numerous Karens who demanded urgent assistance for issues that were trivial at best.
I know these kinds of women. I understand why they evoke so much animosity. I’ve harbored some of that resentment before. I don’t deny that my past experience affects how I interpret this story. While I try to be understanding in situations involving internet outrage, that’s considerably difficult in this case.
The outrage for this woman has already led to some major impacts. The woman has already been fired from her job and has had to make a public apology. On top of that, since her name has already been made public, she’s been subject to plenty of hate and harassment. By any measure, she has faced severe consequences for her actions.
That still raises one important question.
Has this woman been punished too harshly?
It’s not an unreasonable question, even from someone with a bias against stereotypical Karens. There’s a good chance that this woman’s life has been damaged for years to come. She lost her job. She’s being relentlessly harassed. She even had to give up custody of her dog. That’s quite a harsh punishment for someone who wasn’t arrested or charged with any crime.
At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that she threatened an innocent man in a way that could’ve ended very badly for him. She openly and eagerly abused her status as a white woman flaunting the law. Had this not occurred, or had the video not gone viral, she wouldn’t have changed her ways. She would’ve just kept doing what she was doing.
That kind of behavior doesn’t just put innocent people of color at risk. It gives no reason for this kind of Karen-like behavior to stop. It’s only by facing consequences for her behavior that she realizes how wrong it was. Hopefully, others like her see what could happen to them if they were to behave in a similar manner.
That’s the best case scenario, but those scenarios are rarely the end result. At worst, this woman now has even more reasons to resent people of color. She might not have harbored overtly racist attitudes before, but she might feel differently now. She and others like her will now just have to be more tactful with their hate, which could subsequently lead to worse incidents that don’t go viral.
It’s hard to say without knowing the woman personally. I’m usually inclined to accept someone’s sincere apology. I genuinely hope that the woman was sincere. If the man she threatened accepts her apology, then I think the right thing to do is for the rest of us to accept it as well. She has faced plenty of consequences already. Forgiveness should be our first inclination when it is an option.
In a perfect world, the outrage would cease if the person wronged decides to forgive. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. I sincerely doubt the after-effects of this incident are over for the woman involved. It may take a long time for her to recover and in the long run, the outrage could do more harm than good.
It leaves me genuinely torn. I believe that asshole behavior like this should be confronted and punished, especially when it puts an innocent person’s life in danger. I also believe there should be a limit to that punishment. I just don’t know what that limit is and I think it’s worth contemplating.