When “Karen” Is Your Colleague: A Case Analysis on Managing Peer Policing in the Academy

When “Karen” Is Your Colleague: A Case Analysis on Managing Peer Policing in the Academy

Alexanderia T. Smith, Rebecca A. George
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-4626-3.ch009
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This chapter will provide a case study (loosely based on the authors' experiences) that depicts a Black woman, Dr. Jackie, who works in a predominantly white university setting and her experiences with “Karens.” Three different scenarios will be presented within the case study to describe the interactions between the “Karens” and Dr. Jackie. The thought process and emotions that Dr. Jackie experiences after each interaction will be described in detail, as she attempts to brainstorm different ways to address the situation. The chapter will culminate with Dr. Jackie's determination to strategize a plan of action for creating a more serene work environment for herself.
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In light of recent news where white women have called the police on Black people for participating in harmless everyday activities, terms like “Karen” has grown in popular use to describe these middle-class white women whose behavior is fueled by their privilege (Nagesh, 2020). Dr. Cheryl E. Matias (2020) notes in her book, Surviving Becky(s), that white women are in somewhat of a unique position to be oppressed and to oppress, as evidenced by the intersectionality of their gender and race. So, while white women are indeed a part of a group that has historically been oppressed because of their gender, they, in turn, rely on their race as the basis for wielding their power.

Historically, the name “Miss Ann”, the mistress of the plantation has been used by members of the Black community to describe meddlesome, entitled, and belligerent white women. According to Bates (2022), the Miss Anns of the antebellum south gave rise to the blissfully ignorant “Becky” of the 1990s and the “Karens” of 2010 and beyond. While the “Beckys” of the 90s have a limited view of Black people, the Karen is keenly aware of her power and the violent impact it has on Black people (Bates, 2022). The common theme across generations is entitlement.

This entitlement is situated in the white woman being able to be both victim and oppressor at her whim and discretion due to the blanket of “whiteness”. According to Sue (2006), whiteness is disguised as the standard for other groups of color to be evaluated and subsequently found inferior. Moreover, Sue (2006) goes on to share that this disguise is what permits whiteness to cause so much harm with little to no consequence to white people as they maintain their collective and individual power, albeit advantages in society.

These societal advantages that allow “Karens” to perceive those who are not White as subpar human beings also provide ammunition for the microaggressions that she inflicts upon them. According to Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin (2007), microaggressions are brief, everyday occurrences that send demeaning messages to people of color. Microaggressions are not to be taken lightly. However, discrimination often goes unchecked, because many times the behavior is presented in a subtle manner that attempts to hide the true intention (Sue, Alsaidi, Awad, Glaeser, Calle, & Mendez (2019). Discrimination provides fertile soil for growing the ripe “Karen” fruit. Since the White woman is already viewed as innocent, it is automatically presumed that her actions must also be of pure intent, and as innocent as she. However, Sue (2004) asserts that microaggressions have the ability to negatively impact performance by creating a toxic environment of bias, which ultimately drains the energy of those upon whom the microaggressions are inflicted. So, “Karen’s” actions are actually far from innocent.

A university setting often mirrors society’s gender and race relations (Sue, 2004). It is therefore imperative to be aware of the institutional bias that is paramount in evaluation processes, opportunities for advancement, and salary advancements (Sue, 2004). Institutions should be cautioned against the dangers of creating culture conflicts for faculty of color that could lead to feelings of alienation, which ultimately breeds problems with retention (Sue, 2004). A faculty body that lacks diversity could potentially impact the university’s ability to recruit students seeking diverse perspectives and mentorship opportunities. Therefore, cultural conflicts within a university setting have far reaching implications for the overall sustainability of the institution.

This book chapter will illustrate the way in which having “Karen” as a colleague can mimic the mental and emotional abuse commonplace for Black people in plantation life. Black people who were enslaved were robbed of their freedom, their voice, and controlled by slave owners. Although Black people are no longer confined to plantations, Black women still face these same controlling behaviors from “Karens” within the ivory tower, that were alive and well on the plantation. It is critical to address these behaviors that seek to silence the Black woman and extinguish her existence within institutions of higher education. This book chapter, therefore, provides insight on this issue through a case study analysis.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Racism: The oppression of black and brown people by white people via systems and structures working seamlessly behind the scenes to support the status quo of whiteness.

White Fragility: A white person’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the impact of their actions, which leads to displays of hostility, anger, violence and ultimately culminates into the weaponization of their tears in order to be perceived as the victim.

Karen: Typically, a cisgender, middle-age white woman who professes to be a “good Christian” doing what is righteous in the eyes of God as a basis for wielding her power at will against Black Indigenous People of Color, based on the privilege associated with the intersectionality of her race and gender.

Microaggressions: The negative exchanges, be they intentional or unintentional that Black Indigenous People of Color experience at the hands of White people based solely on their race, gender, sexual orientation, sexuality, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, education, and/or disability.

White Privilege: The benefit of not having your race hinder your access to a quality way of being in relation to employment, education, housing, medical services, and financial opportunities.

Miss Ann: The genesis of Karen. Miss Ann typically owned a plantation in conjunction with her husband or inherited her wealth via the enslavement of Africans.

Institutional Racism: The procedure and regulation created to benefit white people and simultaneously disadvantage black and brown people under the guise of policy, laws, and practices.

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