by Karene Horst, contributing editor – My parents named me Karen. I go by Karene in print because there’s a ton of Karen Horsts on the internet. Doctors, lawyers, writers and realtors. Preachers and podcasters. None of them is me.
Still, my inner child is a Karen. You can bet your ass I demand to speak with the manager. In fact I recently called on my neighbors who hosted an illegal and fucking dangerous bonfire next to my home in bone-dry Southern California.
Then there’s the Airbnb across the street with guests who keep leaving trash out days prior to collection day. The bears and coyotes knock over the bins in order to sort through fast food wrappers and pizza boxes before dragging several tasty pieces of cardboard and plastic into the bushes in my yard. I routinely phone the garbage guys and demand they fine the property owners as a public nuisance.
I didn’t always speak up when I felt threatened, disrespected, or attacked. A boy one year older than me raped me when I was 11. As a little girl I grew to expect mean taunts, punched arms and pulled ponytails from boys. At that point the abuse just took a sexual turn.
Men yelling obscene demands through their car windows while they passed me at the bus stop; one trying to drag me into his car as I walked down a dark suburban street. Dates that went south without my consent. The thirtysomething boss who took 15-year-old me to lunch, bought me a couple of margaritas before hitting on me as we motored back to work. A valiant offer by a different colleague to drive me home from some other job one night turned into a desperate negotiation over what sexual “favors” I had to provide if I wanted to be delivered to my front door or dumped on a street corner in South Central LA at 1 a.m.
After a while these encounters became a blur and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many. But all these affronts had one thing in common. I never reported any of them.
Too young, too shocked, too drunk or stoned, too sure that no one would believe me or care. Feeling stupid for putting myself into a vulnerable situation. I’d been asking for it. After the shock wore off, the shame. Then the acceptance. Nothing more than numbing rites of passage.
Big deal. I survived. I never told anyone other than a girlfriend or two. I thought I’d gained a sympathetic ear from one boyfriend, then he executed another version of virtually the same sort of shit.
My antagonists consisted mostly of white men and a few Hispanics. One Asian. Not until I was in my prime, freshly divorced in my early 40s and a career woman on the rise did a Black man try that same sort of shit on me.
We worked together. Striding out of air-conditioned sales offices to check on product, I marched through the warehouse in heels and sharply cut business suits that featured my toned legs. He ran the forklift and drove the delivery truck. No power relationship threatening my job security here; he had absolutely no authority over me and if he screwed up my orders the boss would take him down. He knew it. He just wanted to be a jerk.
Eyes locked on mine, he’d lick his lips and rock his pelvis when he knew no one was looking. Stare me up and down and pat his crotch.
Initially I reacted as I always had: the frightened rabbit skittering back to her hole.
Once again, I did not report him.
Companies don’t just blow off complaints of sexual harassment, not even back then in the 2000s. No reason not to pursue this latest offense and at least file a grievance.
I was no longer some scared little girl. I had my “gethers together” as one of my past dementia patients would have phrased it. I possessed the skills and the tools to confront this man and his offensive behavior, in a legal, effective and professional manner.
But of course I could not. I could not be a Karen.
A white woman of privilege complaining that a BLACK man sexually harassed her? I’d read To Kill A Mockingbird. I’d read about Emmet Till and America’s long and terrifying history of lynching. Thousands of Black men and women died, many of these murders sanctioned by law enforcement and celebrated by entire white communities. Americans lynched Black men for looking at a white woman. For upsetting a white woman. For making a white woman feel nervous or afraid.
I was a bleeding heart liberal. The thought of accusing him, even to just my employer, horrified me.
I realized he had no intention nor opportunity to assault me physically, so I retaliated with the scowl of disdain and disgust I’d perfected in 20 years of marriage accompanied by a contemptuous groan. It worked. He eventually lost interest and resumed his vacant stare and doltish expression.* When my eyes rarely met his, I just sneered.
So I let him off the hook. Why not? How could I call him out when I’d given a pass to all those non-black males who physically molested me or worse. I gave him a little taste of white privilege in order to assuage my white guilt.
I can already see the emojis and tweets responding to my Karenesque whining: You bitches had your turn with #MeToo and they slammed Harvey Weinstein in prison. Now Black Lives Matter, so shut up.
Nope. I’ve had it. From now on, I will always be a Karen. An equal opportunity piss and moaner no matter your gender, race, ethnicity, religious persuasion, sexual orientation, political leanings, wealth or lack thereof, manner of speech or beverage of choice.
I will call you out on your shit and if no one believes me nor cares and wants to troll me and post my face along with my name KAREN on the internet, that’s just fucking fine.
Be good or I’ll Karen your ass.
*a word from the editors: In order to avoid offending our gentle readers, please note that the the use of the adjective “doltish” (definition: dull, stupid, idiotic, moronic, foolish, ignorant, simple) does in no way suggest that ALL men of color are doltish, the word “doltish” only describes a specific individual, who just so happens to also be a Black man.