Janis is a licensed professional counselor in Washington, DC. Areas of specialty include grief, loss, life transition, and trauma recovery.
Defending the Behavior of Karen
Thomas G. Plant, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology and psychiatry at two prominent universities in California. He has in recent weeks posted on his Twitter account and shared his expertise in media interviews about the “Karen” phenomenon where white women are using their white privilege to be verbally confrontational to people of color in public. He rightfully called out the behavior and has shed light on the issue during these tumultuous times of heightened racial tensions and blatant injustices toward African American citizens.
But for some reason, Dr. Plante changed course and wrote an article for Psychology Today about the extreme responses these women are receiving on social media and how it makes all of us look bad when we “vilify Karen.” Many mental health professionals have sounded off about the tone of his article. I read the article and felt insulted and minimized as a Black woman. As a licensed professional counselor, I’d like to sound off and rebut Dr. Plante’s position that these women deserve mercy from the public and that people should focus on forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation rather than express their outrage at Karen in the form of verbal threats and attacks, video recordings and social media posts.
Minimizing the Core Issue of White Supremacy
In his first paragraph, Dr. Plante said that Karen often, but not always, confronts people of color. I did not get the point of needing to say “but not always” as if to say it’s not just people of color; other people are treated poorly by Karen, too. That initial minimization did not sit well with me, in the very first paragraph, prompting a raised eyebrow.
A similar qualifier statement was made in the second paragraph where Dr. Plante states that while many of the examples of Karen that we’ve seen in the news media are clearly racist, many are not. He says many are just Karen exhibiting entitled, demanding behavior. I would argue that the sense of entitlement and demanding behavior, regardless of the situation, comes from the same dark place. The entitlement is undergirded by superiority which stems from white superiority so it’s all the same. He should not attempt to separate it, tone it down, or minimize the origins of white privilege which is a manifestation of intrinsic racism and white supremacy. The same construct is at work even when Karen is raging at a white person as she sends the message, “I’m better than you.”
While many of these "Karen" examples are certainly unacceptably and inexcusably racist, many are not and are often entitled and demanding behavior.
— Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
Karen Must Take Responsibility
The next paragraph of the article reveals Dr. Plante’s his sympathy for Karen as victim, referring to the judgment she receives for her behavior and the unfair consequences that ruin her life. I refuse to take responsibility for someone’s ruined life when it was their privilege that made them think there would be no consequences to their behavior. Furthermore, I would counter that these consequences for intentional behavior do not compare to the threats, lynching of black bodies, verbal assaults, and denial of employment endured by African Americans in this country for hundreds of years. Those consequences did not occur as a result of any bad behavior. They occurred simply because they were black.
Dr. Plante refers to the “mob mentality” as a bad trend. I would say the expression of white superiority exhibited by all of these Karens is a very bad trend. I’m taking issue with more focus being placed on the reaction to bad racist behavior rather than on the behavior itself. Again, it minimizes the initial aggressor and makes excuses for not focusing on the real issue: white privilege and white superiority. Let me clearly state that I do not endorse trolls or vile troll behavior on social media. Nor do I condone death threats under any circumstance. But for Dr. Plante to scold people for “demonizing” a Karen or Ken for acting demon-like is just . . . out of pocket.
Being Accountable for White Privilege
Dr. Plante proposes that instead of attacking and shaming Karen on social media and threatening to take her job, we should regard what we experience as “perceived social transgressions,” and that we might act like that online, too. Wait. What? Are you insinuating that Karen really didn’t mean to be so racist? That we all have the tendency to be mean and hateful? Now you, Dr. Plante, are committing a micro-aggressive, gas-lit assault against every person of color who read that paragraph. You would rather we come together and try to converse about it. Do you really think Karen, who is more likely than not, operating from a position of privilege and white superiority, is going to listen and take heed to “respectful corrective feedback and the calling out of her bad behavior?”
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In your description of Karen’s shortcomings, I resent your characterization of racist, bigoted and verbally violent behavior as “impulsive,” “out of line,” or “moments of weakness” which happens at an unfortunate time when the person would rather not be photographed or recorded. I read between the lines that you’re suggesting we should respectfully not use our camera phones to record bad behavior. As we have learned all too well over the last few years, a self-made recording may be the only evidence available to prove that an injustice or a crime occurred. I found this paragraph to be the most insulting after having witnessed the death of George Floyd on video. The only reason the world knows what happened in that instance is because a brave teenage girl caught the heinous crime on her phone camera.
. . . selfishly, all of us may become victims of the mob mentality since no one is perfect and everyone likely has a moment or two where they would prefer not to be photographed or taped.
— Thomas G. Plante, Ph,D., ABPP
Rationalizing Racist Behavior
I find your use of the term “virtue signaling” in the context of recording Karen, a generalization of motives, conscious or unconscious. I am justified in my outrage if I witness or become a victim of racial injustice or inequity and have every right to record it, post it, and call attention to it. I would argue that the motive in cases of African Americans who are disrespected by Karen and choose to record, is more about feeling threatened and needing evidence to ensure justice later. Your theory on virtue signaling might aptly apply to the inordinate amount of videos we see on social media displaying violence, fights, accidents, gore, or sexual exploits. But you cannot apply it to the viral videos of racist encounters without diminishing the individual experiences of African Americans and people of color. By doing so, you have missed the entire point of the Karen phenomenon and the impact it has had on the psyches of black people and race relations as a whole.
Lastly, you contend that if we could all remember to follow the Golden Rule we would treat each other as each would wish to be treated, with respect and compassion. Yes, it would be great to follow the Golden Rule. I don’t mean to sound cynical but you do know that since 1619, within the context of white supremacy, that concept has never applied to the treatment of black people. The fact that it doesn’t apply is precisely why people like Karen feel justified in treating people of color differently and with so much disdain. So why, Dr. Plante, even bring this concept to the table as an effective way to heal race relations? It reeks of tone-deafness.
. . . the Golden Rule is a pretty good rule. And while problem behavior should certainly be called out and corrective feedback offered, couldn't we do so with some respect and compassion too?
— Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
A Request to Make Amends
Dr. Plante, with all due respect, in my opinion, your article was a missed opportunity for you to call out the Karens of America and challenge them to take full responsibility for igniting fires that escalate and burn them. I hope others will read your article to see and understand the work that still needs to be done to expand awareness and acknowledgement of the intersection between white privilege and racist behavior and how it can unknowingly seep into the mindsets of privileged people, including well-meaning mental health professionals.
My only request of you is to write another article, a follow-up, based on the responses and critiques you’ve received from fellow mental health professionals as well as others on social media who have posted opinions of opposition on your Twitter feed. This would be the least you could do as a form of atonement to address your own unconscious bias, driving you to defend Karen, present rationalizations for her behavior, and theorize in generalities about a community’s expression of outrage while holding said community responsible to follow the Golden Rule and “do the right thing.” I look forward to your response.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Janis Leslie Evans