“Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. Carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries. Only monkeys parade with it.”
- Carl Jung
To properly embody the essence of Karen through appropriating a popular metaphor from another culture, I will say this:
Inside every white woman lives two Karens.
I will also say, perhaps somewhat controversially and/or offensively, that we may all have two Karens inside of us. Karens aren’t always white (though white Karens definitely possess a specific kind of power, and we all know what that’s called). Karens can be male. They can be gay. They can be trans. They can be"Karl” or “Kevin” or “Kelly” or “Kai.” In essence, Shadow Karens are all the same. They all have a reciprocal counterpart, and they all need to be integrated, which is a continuous lifelong process.
As we already know, the Karen part of the shadow is always ready to complain and always wants to speak to the manager. To my mind, what separates Shadow Karen from Integrated Karen are these questions:
“What is the complaint?”
“Who is the manager?”
Shadow Karen’s problem is that she often wants to complain to the people who actually have a lot more to complain about than she does. Shadow Karen goes for people over whom she is temporarily in a systemically created, arbitrary, or even an imagined position of power. Retail and foodservice workers, low-level bureaucrats, marginalized groups, even random strangers with submissive personalities or who are of low intelligence, or those who simply have Karen-unfriendly ideas.
Shadow Karen usually doesn’t bite off more than she can chew. She punches down. She sticks to the fights she knows she can win. This actually isn’t super satisfying for SK. She might feel good at the moment, but it’s kinda like eating a bunch of sugar and carbohydrates. The next day she just feels tired and bloated, and maybe a little ashamed.
Shadow Karen’s motives are usually not aligned with my own, which is why I repress her. But that’s no good. You can only repress your Karen for so long. Believe me, she will find a way to get out.
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
We must become fully conscious of our internal Karens, for our own sake and for the sake of everybody else.
It’s difficult to deny the strength of the energy brought by Shadow Karen. She might be annoying, but she’s also fierce. And stubborn. She knows what she wants and she’s goddamn going to get it. Quickly, and on the right plate and in the right color and presented by the right person with the right smile on their face.
I am often overwhelmed by the SKs I encounter in my day-to-day life. I’m spared a great deal of Karening due to being white and not having worked in traditional customer service positions for quite a while (the male Karens I’ve encountered while working in strip clubs are a topic for another blog post), or ever having been a bureaucrat. Still, you never know when Karen will come for you. She’s coming for you right now! I hope, for your sake, that you have brought her the correct salad dressing. Shadow Karen will dominate the world if you let her. It’s important to get Shadow Karen under control.
So what happens when you integrate Karen? She’s part of you, and there’s no use in pretending that she’s not there. We’ve got to figure out a way to acknowledge the Shadow Karen and allow her to be a part of us, without her affecting our own lives or the lives of others in negative ways. Right?
What if there were a better use for Karen's powers? After all, there are a whole lot of managers we can speak to in this world, and not all of them work at Target. And middle-class white women certainly don’t have a monopoly on aggressive, persistent complaining. Or at least they shouldn’t.
Karen powers undeniably can be and are often used for evil. But I also think that maybe the Karens inside us are capable of doing good.
I’ve been reading Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, and I think she makes some really great points about how complaining can be useful both as praxis and as a form of pedagogy. Complaining can create tangible positive change in the world, especially when it challenges institutional power. It can also teach you a lot about institutional power. Ahmed explores what happens to the people who complain about abuses of power, how it happens, and why it happens.
So what happens when we make a complaint?
Ahmed writes about the long and often confusing process of making a complaint in an institutional setting.
There are often procedures for complaints. Usually flowcharts. Often those procedures are ridiculous, often they aren’t followed, and you sometimes have to complain more in order to make sure that they are followed. You have to push, every step of the way against the institution. It often becomes very layered, very complicated. You may have to tell the same story over and over again to different people. A file is created and everything about your complaint goes into the file. Sometimes the file just sits there. Sometimes it goes to the complaint graveyard, otherwise known as a filing cabinet. Sometimes you even have to make another complaint about how your original complaint was handled.
Far from being linear, Ahmed illustrates accurately what the process of complaining often looks like:
The burden of all of this work is on the complainant. It’s tedious. It’s taxing. It’s frustrating. It’s often traumatic - the process of complaining can sometimes even cause more pain than the thing initially being complained about. The interrogations. The not-being-believed. The not-being-cared-about. The endless gaslighting. The endless runaround.
This process is very tough. But it’s also very informative.
“The experience of making a complaint throws so much light on what is often made obscure or kept in the shadows.” (p.40)
“Complaints can thus allow institutions to be registered all the more intensely; you acquire a sense of the institution though an experience of restriction. A complaint provides a phenomenology of the institution. You become more attuned to the environment of the institution; you begin to perceive what might have been part of the background.” (p.40-41)
So, through complaining, we can learn more about how the institution operates. Often we can learn about how it is failing to operate, failing to serve its purpose. We can learn that the way things appear on the surface is often pretty far from what’s actually going on.
Complaints can get ugly. And if you’re the one complaining, you’re right in the middle of all of that ugliness.
Something that Ahmed argues in her book is something that I’ve also learned firsthand - institutions don’t want to be seen as ugly. They will sweep that ugliness under the rug at every possible opportunity. Institutions will try very hard to shift the blame from the actual problem and the person or persons creating it onto the person complaining about the problem. The complainant must be made to be seen as ugly. To be transformed into the Shadow Karen archetype, and just as easily dismissed. As hostile. As entitled. As unreasonable. Even if all you’re asking for is to be treated with basic respect and human dignity. Even if you’re fighting for a good cause. It’s not the foam in our lattes that we’re talking about here - it’s civil rights, human rights, professional ethics, and matters of truth and justice.
Often, if you complain, you will face retaliation. You will be warned about this first, and the warnings will become progressively sterner and more threatening. The institution will find ways to make life harder for you. Sometimes you’ll be on the receiving end of a counter-complaint. You might be fired, or you might be expelled. Sometimes you’ll even get sued. They might try to force you to sign an NDA. You might be forced into the public eye, dragged across social media, cruelly criticized, and vilified by strangers who have no idea what it’s like to be you or to have experienced the things that you have experienced.
What we’re left with is a sort of stick and carrot situation. The carrot in front of us is what we want from the institution: an education, a promotion, a chance to have a career, a chance to be respected. They might even try to bribe you to keep you quiet. But if you keep complaining, you’ll probably get the stick. All of this and more can be taken from you. Institutions are designed to make complaining very difficult and shutting up very easy. They punish the complainers and reward the silent.
This also leads to the bystander effect. This is something that I have painfully realized through my own process of having made complaints to institutions.
There are often other people around you who are sympathetic to your situation. They agree that what’s happening is an injustice. But they just can’t help you. Or rather, they could, but they won’t, because they know that if they were to do that, they would put themselves in danger. They would be drawn into the same nightmarish and labyrinthine world in which you currently reside. And most people simply aren’t willing to take that risk. Job security is too important. Careers are too important. Reputations are too important.
Do you want to know what I think is more important than jobs, careers, and reputations?
The truth is still the truth, no matter how many different times you have to tell it and to how many different people. It’s still the truth even if you aren’t explaining it articulately. It’s still the truth if it makes people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. It’s still the truth if it harms the reputation of someone “important.” It’s still the truth if it’s ugly and if it’s about a friend of yours. It’s still the truth if it’s buried in a file cabinet somewhere. It’s still the truth if it puts jobs and careers at risk. It’s still the truth if The Rules say it doesn’t matter. It’s still the truth if it demands that The Rules be changed.
So what about you? Have you witnessed abuses of power? Have you been on the receiving end of one? Are you fed up with the status quo? Are you ready for institutional change? Do you care about the truth?
Maybe it’s time to let your Karen out to play.
I have a message for institutional power, from my Karen and all the other well-meaning Karens of the world, struggling to integrate:
We would like to speak to your fucking manager.