“Just as I thought Howard, you’re a racist,” is how “Karen” said in her email. My suspicion was that she fitted the description of the “Karen” caricature that’s become synonymous with white, female, woman these days who call the cops on innocent Black folks who are caught walking in the “wrong” neighborhood, barbequing burgers in “our park,” or otherwise just being Black in the U.S.
As is the usual tactic with people like “Karen,” she slammed the door on an opportunity for me to respond with this: “I have nothing else to say to you Howard, so goodbye.”
Okay, let’s pause before jumping to conclusions.
Now is “Karen” indeed white? And what if she wasn’t white? Did she know that I’m Black? Well, she would have to be 100% blind given that my headshot is included with all my columns. Supposing that my picture was not included thereby leaving no clue of my race, would she have called me a racist? Hey, your answers to these head scratching questions are as good as mine.
Caught off guard and flummoxed by that message from “Karen,” I reread the thread of messages looking for the one that could have set her off. But the only one I could find was one where I asked her to provide facts to support her position on what was really an innocuous issue. There was not a single mention of the word “race,” in her position or in my request for facts. Nothing. But like the sound of someone hanging on you on the phone – click! – I could “hear” her “hanging up” on me with a resounding “delete.”
Okay deep breath readers. Sit on all this momentarily.
You see, what this suggests to me is that too often nowadays, many keep a finger on their “race trigger” when it comes to matters of race in race obsessed America. Like showdowns between two gunslingers from the old west, contemporary gunslingers like “Karen” are quick to fire off the racist “bullet” before it gets shot at them. They close the door to the legitimate need for clarification and dialogue. The name of the game for them is when pressed for explanation, just respond with an accusation of racism and –bang! – game over.
A truism if there ever was one is that racial life in America takes you down the road to unexpected places, a road littered with episodes of ups and downs, hits and misses and more than a few surprises. Like meddlesome dandelions in the front yard, the specter of race keeps coming up as a reminder of how far we’ve come yet how far we need to go. One step forward, two, three, four, five steps back.
Now what’s interesting is how we often “rubberneck” around fender benders along the racial highway, as we sit safely in the front seat whispering, “thank the Lord that’s not me.” We roll up our windows and watch the matter dissipate through our rearview mirrors and into the distance of our imagination.
Unfortunately, many were lulled into believing that the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States ushered in a “post racial” America. Well, that was until the “I can’t breathe” George Floyd crashed the party and ushered in the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Now some may ask why I occasionally write about race. Fair question. Well, long answer short, I’m not monolithic nor am I willing to be pigeonholed into writing about certain issues.
I write about race because like those dandelions in my lawn needing attention race needs to be written about. Inarguably, race is staring us in the face. We see it lurking behind, “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are (you fill in the blank),” and a landscape littered with code words and dog whistles. We see it gerrymandering, voter suppression and a long list of other disparities, many of them barely recognizable. I write about race because race provides a pipeline to stereotypes, irrational fears, and acts of hate.
On matters of race, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts wrote, “Race is always around us, isn’t it? Even when it shouldn’t be, even you don’t want it to be, even when you flee it like an ally mugger, it’s always there.”
When we tiptoe around race, we “outsource” the conversation to places that get to shape, distort, or leave the issue in the hands of slick politicians and book banners.
And the funny – well, maybe the not so funny – thing is that when I don’t write about race often enough, I sometimes get pinged for ducking race. Go figure. Now am I “race-obsessed” as I been told several times? No. I say that because I’m not preoccupied with race to a troubling extent. “Race conscious,” yes. I say that because I am aware – sometimes painfully so – of the implications of race and its historical and contemporary manifestations.
Some working definitions here.
Racial obsessions are persistent thoughts that cause distressing emotions such as anxiety, fear, guilt or disgust. Racial obsessions put people on the defensive and cause them to overreact, even in innocuous “Karen-like” situations. Racial consciousness brings with it less “walking on eggshells” around others, courage, better decision-making, improved relationships, emotional well-being and personal actions that can have a positive impact on the world.
So my departing message to the “Karens” (and “Keiths”) of this world is when you slam the phone down on folks on matters or race, you inspire them to keep writing about race. So take a deep breath, remove your guardrails, set aside your racial anxieties and allow in perspectives that you may not have considered. In the words of poet Robert Frost, take “the road not taken” …….race consciousness!
Okay, before I go, I’ll try one last time to connect with “Karen.”
“Hey Karen, can we……..” CLICK!
Well, I tried!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.