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Case Studies

Come & Get Your Neighbor Karen

May 29, 2020
7 min read

As white women who care, when racism unfolds in the mainstream, we tend to react in a myriad of ways. Most of them are pretty predictable.

  • Speak up, speak out (read: repost)
  • Get mad
  • Read think pieces
  • Feel sad/shocked/horrified
  • Feel like we need to “do something,” (but we’re not actually sure what to “do”)
  • Go on Facebook to see if our problematic childhood friends or aunts are saying something that we can comment on/fight with/ ‘educate”/ get even more upset about how awful they are.

We might even repost something about Karen. About how we can’t stand her either, about how she’s what’s wrong with America, about how despicable she is — how she currently and historically perpetuates racism and the terrorization of black and brown people in modern workplaces, parks, schools, neighborhoods, and beyond.

And it’s all true.

So just to let you know upfront, this isn’t an article about how even though you’re trying, you’re still doing it wrong. It’s also not an article from a white lady who is deflecting her own compliance by being extra loud about other racists.

This is about finding the Karen within you. Within me. It’s about our neighbor Karen. Our coworkers, friends, moms, sisters, and aunts who are Karen.

It’s about how unfortunately, running away from racism doesn’t make it go away. Disassociating ourselves from racists (as white people) doesn’t actually help racism.

(If it did, I’d do it in a heartbeat.)

But, unfortunately, I’ve tried. Others have tried it too, and it just doesn’t work. And I would actually argue that these days, it runs the risk of making things worse.

As an anti-racist white woman who’s spent years doing DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) work, I’ve been disrupting white dinner tables, classrooms, holidays, and workspaces for the greater part of my life. Half my family’s from the south, and they’re far less racist than the folks I grew up with in rural upstate New York. I don’t have to reach too far outside of my bubble to bump into a family friend or a neighbor with racist beliefs in their head. I definitely know my fair share of Karens.

But I didn’t always feel comfortable revealing that.

When I was in college, I was so actively anti-racist that I kind of wished I wasn’t white (at the time, there weren’t many examples of anti-racist white folks out there––it was years before I met my good friend, Dr. Paula Ioanide). It was so much easier to just erase myself into my multicultural friend group, sneak into spaces as maybe Latinx, or overly identify with my 1/16th Native American ancestry.

I’d fight with my family (even though they were pretty anti-racist to begin with) — they still were “problematic” (as I’d come to humbly realize we all were). And it was embarrassing. As were my friends, as was my entire (white) life.

Eventually, I got past my self-disgust phase because I realized that fighting with people who were problematic, or even racist, didn’t actually improve the bottom line for people of color. Which is, and should always be, our goal.

It’s suuuuper tricky to be an anti-racist white person who maintains open communication with people who voted for Trump; people who are ignorant on matters of race (read: regular white people); and it’s definitely a mindf*ck to maintain open communication with people who are actually, indeed, straight-up racist.

But if we don’t, who will?

The answer is Fox News. Other white people who are just as ignorant on matters of race. Essentially, just an all-white sounding board of folks who do not have a racial justice education, like, at all at all.

And I know this is controversial, but I have compassion for those people.

I have to.

After all, if I wasn’t privileged enough to grow up in a family who loved everyone, privileged enough to leave my racist hometown, go to college, study what I wanted (Black Studies & Spanish), make a bunch of friends from different cultures… then I might totally be Karen too.

And let’s be real sis, you’ve probably have had some Karen moments in your life. After all, we can get real worked up about the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. We can spend our whole lives fighting them, indeed. And still, it won’t do a damn thing to improve the bottom line for people of color.

Photo of life raft with words “Welcome Aboard” (Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)
Photo of life raft with words “Welcome Aboard” (Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

So this is the hard work of being an anti-racist white person: holding the door open for other white folks who are definitely going to say and do the wrong things.

And sometimes, it’s going to be so painful you’ll sob heavy, ugly tears because you just can’t believe how someone you love could have so much hate and ignorance in their heart.

And those are the right tears to cry. Because let’s face it: talking with white people about racism can be tremendously demoralizing. But nonetheless, it’s the conversation for us as white people to keep having. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and racism is generations in the making. The undoing will be our life’s work. We’ve got to manage our expectations accordingly.

Racism, and Karen behavior, is deplorable, and deadly. But you know that.

So we have to be strategic here, and every strategy starts with a goal.

Goal: Make white people less racist


  • ̶S̶h̶a̶m̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶(tried that, doesn’t work)
  • ̶C̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶r̶a̶c̶i̶s̶t̶s̶ ̶(unfortunately no)
  • ̶S̶c̶r̶e̶a̶m̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶(nope)
  • ̶M̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶f̶u̶n̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶(yeah no)
  • ̶W̶r̶i̶t̶e̶ ̶e̶x̶t̶r̶a̶ ̶l̶o̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶n̶k̶ ̶p̶i̶e̶c̶e̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶o̶n̶l̶y̶ ̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶l̶i̶b̶e̶r̶a̶l̶ ̶w̶h̶i̶t̶e̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ ̶( -_- )
  • ̶A̶r̶g̶u̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶F̶a̶c̶e̶b̶o̶o̶k̶,̶ ̶T̶w̶i̶t̶t̶e̶r̶,̶ ̶o̶r̶ ̶I̶n̶s̶t̶a̶g̶r̶a̶m̶ ̶(not unless you’re actually having a respectful back and forth, in which case it actually can help)
  • ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶w̶ ̶a̶ ̶b̶u̶n̶c̶h̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶l̶a̶n̶g̶u̶a̶g̶e̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶j̶u̶s̶t̶ ̶l̶e̶a̶r̶n̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶l̶o̶n̶g̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶r̶e̶c̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶t̶i̶r̶a̶c̶i̶s̶t̶ ̶j̶o̶u̶r̶n̶e̶y̶ ̶ (Communication is key, class and privilege is real, and we shouldn’t be patronizing people for not knowing the things we learned about yesterday. Shouldn’t need a dictionary or an encyclopedia to elicit compassion. Keep it human.)
  • Ask them questions (hmm…)
  • Offer alternative stories/facts/information (again, in a non-patronizing way, ladies)
  • Listen to their experiences that have shaped their opinions (sometimes when people have the space to share where they’re coming from, out loud, they realize how shortsighted their thoughts were)
  • Offer alternative narratives, resources, and truths (this has worked for me many times)
  • Stay super calm (for the sake of the goal, yall. This is so hard, but remember, people’s lives may be depending on it).
  • When they say racist or problematic things, communicate to them otherwise with a level of compassion you’d show a kid who doesn’t know any better (okay I know that sounds super patronizing but it’s how I’d like to be corrected, too. How about you?)
  • Always stay learning. (The more we can learn about whiteness and racism, the more we can undo and share.)

Caveat 1

There are 4 dimensions of racism: internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural. In this article, I’m talking about the internalized and interpersonal aspects of racism for white people. There are TONS of amazing DEI practitioners working to successfully help with the institutional + structural aspects of racism. Which essentially means the Karens of the world receiving DEI training at work. But when we’re talking about Karen, your neighbor, or your aunt, in a casual setting, this is the framework that works for me.

Caveat 2

What do you do with a Karen who calls the police on a bird watcher? All of the things organizers and advocates are already doing. But for Karens who have not yet become internet stars (and we don’t want to let them get there), consider intervening on the daily with some of the tips above.

Caveat 3

These tips are geared towards white folks, as I’m not in a position to offer advice on how to deal with Karens as a person of color. My job is to try to reach and deprogram them before they exist; listen and amplify the voices of people of color who are suffering from these perpetrators of racism, and publicly support the anti racist movement forward.

In the words of anti racist scholar and fellow white lady Keri Leigh Merritt, PhD:

“We can’t just write off everyone who voted for Trump. There has to be some sense of a radical love, an understanding. And I think from a very personal level, anybody who’s been raised as a white American, in the vast majority of cases, they’ve been raised in houses of racism. They’ve been raised and indoctrinated in racism since birth. And kind of, de-programming all of these people isn’t going to happen overnight.”

It’s a journey, and it’s always the right time to hop on it. Be the person who helps Karen become less racist. She’s our mess to clean up, and not anyone else’s.

Eden Connelly TallaricoEden Connelly Tallarico

Head of Growth @ Collective | Equitable business strategist invested in health, justice, and the earth.