We Need To Talk About 'COVID Karens'

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 
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I was lurking recently on a local Facebook group I’m in, too exhausted to chime in on the conversation, but there were many women (white women) complaining about being called a “Karen.” Remember how that word came to be a thing by the internet? Calling someone a “Karen” has become a popular way to point out the ignorance, action, or comment, by a white woman who is not woke to her white privilege.

Ellie Hunt, in the The Guardian, describes it like this: “According to a popular meme, Karen is a middle-aged white woman with an asymmetrical bob asking to speak to the manager, who happens to be as entitled as she is ignorant.” Since schools across the country have started back up, Karens are all over the COVID-19 pandemic and the idea that wearing a mask infringes on their right as an American. And their feelings about wearing a mask (or making their kids wear them), or claiming science is wrong or that this is not a public health crisis, shows their privilege.

I understand not wanting to be called a Karen, or any other name other than the one on your birth certificate. But this is where we are as a country and this is who we are — let’s get real with that fact. The reason white women don’t want to be called a Karen has everything to do with having privilege. They want the privilege of being called by their given name (just like Black people or other minorities, but that’s for another discussion altogether).

Madeline Kazantzis, a mother of two, founded the Utah-based group Moms Against Masks coalition in response to trends she saw happening across the country — and disagreed with. “I’m just against the mandating of them. I believe that having a choice is the key at hand here more than anything,” she shares in an article for St. George News. “But, now that masks have been mandated for the schools in particular here in our state, my coalition has taken off.” She goes on to say, “For a lot of us it was to ensure that Americans’ future remains free.”

My question for her: which Americans? More than just a few of us don’t have that kind of privilege to “be free.” Free to sleep in our own homes without the fear of being killed, free to walk to and from the store, free to play on the playground, or walk in the park without being harassed or murdered, free to feel safe in public wearing the skin we were born with. We all have the right to feel safe, to live freely, but what happens when those freedoms create an unsafe environment for others — like guns or not wearing masks? It is a necessity to be an active participant in keeping other people (and yourself and your kid) safe from a virus we don’t know nearly enough about.

But there are certain things some white women just don’t understand: 1) why wearing a mask is necessary, and 2) their privilege. And the two are important to get to the bottom of and figure out. That’s their work to do and not mine. Don’t get mad when people say you have privilege — look deep within yourself to figure out the areas in which you do.

This kind of white woman typically does not need to worry about having health insurance or whether she can take paid leave if she or her children get sick — it’s a privilege they have as people who are gainfully employed. Having the availability to see your primary care physician without waiting, or dealing with the bureaucracy of health insurance, or the fear that your symptoms might not be taken seriously — that’s privilege, and the COVID Karens are living out loud and soaking it up.

But what about the mom or family who serves meals at the diner and must send her kid to school too, Karen? What about the people who clean up hospital rooms after patients leave the hospital? What about the bus drivers? What about the men and women who call out our orders at Chipotle or prepare our food in the kitchens of so many restaurants?

These are the same men and women who work for minimum wage and often without the privilege and peace of mind of having health insurance or paid leave. If they miss a day of work, they miss a day of pay. These people, predominantly minorities, are working to serve the America we all live in, and provide necessary and important services to all. What about their families, their kids, their right to live and walk the streets, masked, because they are thinking of the health and safety of others?

But the COVID Karens don’t see their actions as careless, or notice that they are putting others — especially those in less-privileged positions — at risk by their choice to claim not wearing a mask as their God-given right. Now, with school doors open and in-person learning an option for millions of kids across America, these moms are teaching their kids that it’s okay to overlook the well-being of others, to make self-serving decisions with no consideration or compassion for their peers. They are passing their entitlement on to their children.

Most importantly, they are teaching their kids through their selfish behaviors that their “right” to not wear a mask is an American right, a white person’s right, which perpetuates racism and division within our country.

For that, we all suffer … and I don’t just mean from the threat of COVID.

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