What’s in a Name (or Screw Those Labels)

“Karen, time for lunch, Sweetie,” my mother called. Our lunches were special on weekdays with Daddy gone to work and Debbie off to school, so I eagerly joined her in the kitchen. It was just me and Mother for grilled cheese sandwiches and Charles Chips. Being the youngest, second child, it was a joy to hear only my name, rather than be at the end of a string of family members. To be singled out.

Karen is my name, who I’ve been for sixty-some years. It’s a name I’m used to, not Gregory or Stephen, the only two names my parents had picked prior to my birth. (They expected me to be a boy.)

Surprised doesn’t begin to describe my reaction when I recently heard a friend reference Karens in a not-so-positive way.

What?

My friend explained that Karen was a commonly used slang term for white-privileged, racist, entitled women.

Say what? That’s not me. I try to care for all people. And I don’t think I’m entitled to anything.

I was upset by her words. I’m now racist because my name is Karen? Why is Karen used like that? How would Ann feel if her name were trampled and used as a slang term? Or Katy or Janice? I guarantee, not good. No generalizations, please. Whether it’s about a political party, a race, a religion, or a name, no one should assume anything about an entire population. That’s unfair. It’s wrong.

What are the results of labeling people? It gives other folks ideas about what kind of people we are, whether true or not, causing prejudice. And if someone has defined our place in the world, it might be because they intend to keep us there. Think of the impact on self-confidence; why should we hope to succeed if nobody encourages us or believes we can? Accordingly, we limit ourselves in what we achieve, partly by the efforts of others to keep us in what they consider to be our place and partly by our inability to see our potential beyond labels.

Labeling things may help us make sense of the world, reducing the vastness of our surroundings to a space or word we can comprehend. But it also harms us—those being labeled and those doing the labeling—by destroying hope and opportunity for ourselves and for others.

When I heard about this use of my name, I went into defense mode. I wanted to make folks understand I’m not racist, though I expect those same people will say that denying I’m racist makes me racist (yes, logic has gone out the window). 

Throughout fourth and fifth grades, back in the nineteen-sixties, I was friends with a black girl who lived a block away. Once when she was playing with Barbie dolls in my room, another neighbor, a white girl, came to play, but immediately left when she saw the black girl there. My reaction? I chose to no longer play with the white girl because of her unfriendliness.

When my children were in elementary school, one of my best friends was black. Her two sons spent so much time at my house they were like sons to me.

I look at people for who they are on the inside—their personality and humor, their inner light. Skin and bone do not define people. Nor do beliefs or achievements. We are each unique and can best be described by our honesty, our willingness to do the right thing, our courage to try new things, and by the way we love and treat others.

Yet I’m identified as racist because I’m called Karen.

My friend said she wasn’t referring to me when she used my name in this white-privileged sort of way. My question, though, is if you actually know me, you know that’s not who I am, so why would you put me in that box? I don’t care that it’s become a slang term or label everyone uses. 

I read up on Karens and learned that they’re selfish. I guess that’s why I always share my chocolate. Oh, and Karens routinely call the police when people of color do things they disagree with. The only time I’ve ever called the police on anyone was when a dog belonging to a white neighbor bit me. And that was only to ensure the dog didn’t attack any children. Karens refuse to wear masks? That’s why I’ve made about three hundred of them for other people and never go anywhere without one. And Karens don’t believe in vaccines, though a nurse gave me a flu shot just a few months ago.

Do I sound angry? I am. I try to see people as individuals and I want them to see me the same way. Let’s not label because of gender, color, beliefs, age, or even name. But it seems I’m not supposed to complain. An article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Mythology of Karen” by Helen Lewis asserts, “What is more Karen than complaining about being called ‘Karen’?” Unless, of course, your name actually happens to be Karen. Sheesh. 

A Super Bowl commercial for M&M’s shows one girl handing another girl a bag of M&Ms as she says, “Sorry I called you Karen.”

“That’s my name,” says the receiver of the candy.

“Sorry your name is Karen,” responds the first girl, as she hands Karen another pack of M&Ms.

Now they’re not only dissing my name, they’re connecting its misuse to one of my favorite candies. Will this never stop?

In my Bible I keep a bookmark my mother gave me years ago that gives an old-time meaning of the name Karen: “pure one.” The marker quotes Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is more desirable than great riches,” and has long encouraged me to do what is right, giving hope for the future.

I am KarenIt’s a good name. Not a label.

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