Empathy for the Devil

“What few people realized or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.”

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the Jim Crow south and to the rest of the country in the 20th century, is an excellent book. It’s taught me a good deal about a span of American history my own education glossed over, and given me tools and concepts that have really helped me to understand the nation I was born to and live in. One of the usefullest is Wilkerson’s conception of life in the South as ruled by a strict caste system, one that not only assigns people to their place within a strict hierarchy, but also sets the protocols for how they can and should treat one another, and the incentives and disincentives that enforce those protocols. More importantly, Wilkerson shows us — often in heartbreaking detail — how the simple fact of the caste system’s existence so incentivizes the commission of cruel and unjust acts, systematically and at the individual level, that it’s probably more accurate to say it demands them.

Status, after all, must be demonstrated. Power unexercised isn’t power.

It’s got me thinking, of all things, about Karens. Karens, in case you’ve been living under a rock (and if you have, is there a spare room I can use? Shit’s crazy out here), are white women of a certain age who weaponize their privilege, particularly with regard to people of color. The lady who calls the police because black people. The woman who wants to speak with your manager because when you said ‘Have a nice day!’ you didn’t mean it sincerely enough. The ferocious protector of the status quo for whom the notion of keeping her opinion to herself is anathema if not outright unconstitutional.

Now, I spent thirty years or so in the hospitality industry, so I’ve known Karen since before she was Karen. She was the one who took the game seriously, the customer service addict who mistook the staff pretending that she was important and that what she wanted mattered for the real thing. Who thought service was not so much a quirk of the transaction but her God-given due, and who reveled in treating you like shit because either you swallowed it, thus reifying her status over you, or you kicked, and then she could call your manager and try and get you fired. Now of course that’s way better than when she calls the police and they come kill you, which is what Karen likes doing to black folks. Gotta acknowledge that. But it’s still shitty and, believe you me, it predates the slang term ‘Karen’ and, well, the internet itself.

So, aside from Karen’s leveraging structural racism, what does Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration have to do with the modern-day white lady who knows exactly how the system is rigged in her favor and joyfully exploits it for her own advantage and/or satisfaction?

As you may have guessed, it comes down to the caste system, and the tensions and limits involved in trying to live inside one. Because Karen is also oppressed and unhappy. Why else do you think she acts out? It’s not an excuse — there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy — but I do think it’s helpful to understand the motivations that drive her.

When the post-mortems came out for the 2016 election, one of the heartbreaking-est takeaways was that something over half of white women declined to vote for their fellow white woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and instead chose white supremacist and patriarchal poster-child Donald Trump. There was a lot of head-scratching in the media, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out. If there are two aspects of your identity, one of which is privileged and one of which is not, which one do you think most people will identify with?

Karen exists in a curious intersection the American caste system. Her whiteness, and her embrace of the advantage and privilege it confers, put her just one tier shy of the very top. It empowers her over almost everyone, which incentivizes a full-throated acceptance and embrace of the hierarchy the caste system posits as real. But with that embrace comes the acceptance that she can never be more than number two: she herself is always subject to, and subjugated by, the men in her life. Whatever her inclinations or aptitudes, her dreams or desires for herself and her own future, she is trapped just as surely as those she sees as below her, her options constrained by the strictures she otherwise celebrates. It’s a tension that can’t be resolved without rejecting the hierarchy that so values and validates her.

So Karen acts out. She externalizes her misery at the gilded cage her life must be lived in. Misery, after all, loves company, and so begets cruelty even when status doesn’t demand it. Shit always rolls downhill.

***

Learning to deal with the Karens of the world was one of the hardest things about making a career in hospitality. Thanks to my own immersion in the America in which Karen’s caste system holds sway — we don’t all buy it, of course, but we all know it’s there — swallowing shit didn’t come easy. But you learn ways around it, or you find a new line of work. For my own part, the trick turned out to be the simple realization — and constant repetition til it stuck — that while this person would make my life miserable for the next five minutes, they had to live in that misery all the time.

Not to say that I sympathized. Because Karens do real harm, and often as not they do it intentionally. That’s not a thing lightly forgiven, even if you understand where it comes from. But understanding where it comes from can help, at least a little.

If nothing else, you can take solace in the fact that, as miserable as she wants to make you, Karen is miserable, too. And she’ll never break free of that misery, because it stems from the caste system she takes her identity and validation from. And while that may not provoke much in the way of sympathy, schadenfreude’s a pretty good substitute when Karen’s just tried to offload some of that misery on you.

2 thoughts on “Empathy for the Devil

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