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Chapter II: Moving Mad in these Streets
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the second of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
If you grew up racialised outside of Whiteness in Britain or really any Anglo-European country, the chances are you will be asked “where are you from?” on a regular basis. After reading some poems on this very issue at a Northamptonshire arts and heritage festival, I was walking home only to be stopped in my tracks by a White woman probably in her late 40s / early 50s saying “people like you aren’t really British.” Whilst I have been asking myself similar questions, for a White person to do this so confidently is unsettling … they’re moving mad in these streets. In this blog post, I will discuss this racial micro-aggression, underpinned by racist epistemologies with us Black people viewed in this country as immigrant; interloper; Other, whilst simultaneously Whiteness being synonymous with “localness” (Brown, 2006). In this encounter just outside of Northampton, I was further reminded that to be Black and British in this country is to live in a perpetual state of “double consciousness” (DuBois, 1903: 1).
Rather than identify with “Black Britishness”, (a pigeon-hole in my opinion), the term ‘afropean’ (Philips, 1987; Pitts, 2020) feels much more appropriate and fluid. However, the term Karen is one I don’t particular enjoy, but the woman in question could be described as such. In using this label, I am trying to create a frame of reference for you (the audience), not allow the person in question to escape scrutiny. This woman was a Jane Bloggs, I had never seen her before and she felt entitled enough to stop me in the street and continually criticise my right to belong. For those of you local to Northampton, I was walking between that stretch of path on Wellingborough Road, between Weston Favell Centre and Aldi. This encounter reminded me of my place in Britain, where ‘British-Asianness’ (Shukla, 2016; Riz Ahmed, 2019; Shukla, 2021) and ‘Black Britishness’ have frequently been difficult to define (Rich 1986, Gilroy, 1987; Yeboah, 1988; Young, 1995; Christian, 2008; Olusoga, 2016; Hirsch, 2017, Ventour, 2020). Even amongst White subjects themselves, what it means to be British has often been a question of challenge (Fox, 2014), and when I articulated that both my parents were born in the UK (Lichfield City and Northampton), she was visiblely upset and put-out.
The term ‘Karen’ comes from a name that was frequent among middle-aged women who were born between 1957 and 1966 with its peak in 1965 (Social Security Data). The name is also the Danish rendition of Katherine associated with the Greek for pure. Yet, the meaning of the word has undergone pejoration. In sociolinguistics, ‘pejoration’ is when a positive word becomes negative over time. ‘Karen’ as it has come to be known today has uses as early as September 2016 and as we know now, Karen has become synonymous with racist middle-aged White women, often associated with their harrassment of Black people just minding their business. On my way home, this harrassment found me walking while Black. For others, it has occured shopping while Black; birdwatching while Black; jogging while Black; listening to music in their house while Black, and more. The encounters we know about are generally examples that make news headlines but there are far more examples that do not make the national press, because they are pervasive.
Writing my MA dissertation on the 1919 Race Riots, I saw even in Edwardian Britain the nationality and citizenship rights of Black people in this country were contested (Belchem, 2014: 56), both those born British subjects in parts of the British Empire and those that were in fact born and raised here (May and Cohen, 1974), in spite of their legal status under the 1914 British Nationality and Aliens Act. Today, we are asked “where you from?” underpinned by historical racist epistemologies that defined Englishness as White (Dabiri, 2021). However, even in the image of so-called multiculturalism in the UK, the Britishness of Black and Brown people still has qualifiers attached. Watching ‘Homecoming’, the finale of David Olusoga’s popular series Black and British, the historian claims “… there is one barrier that confronted the Windrush Generation that we have largely overcome, and that’s because there are few people these days who question the idea that it is possible to be both Black and British” (54:46-55:00).
My experiences as a child and as an adult still tell me that Black Britishness is an increasingly contentious question, but even more testing … to be Black and English. In August 2021, MP David Lammy defended his right to call himself Black English from a caller into his LBC show. Whilst he was later met with lots of support online, what is interesting was the numbers of Black people on Twitter that challenged him on his right to be Black and English. If English is a nationality, better yet, a “civic identity”, nobody should be argueing someone’s right to choose where they belong. Furthermore, David Olusoga’s comments in ‘Homecoming’ seem blinkered and out of touch with people on the ground that still experience this epistemic racism on a daily basis. Especially my generation navigating the superhighways of identity where as one scholar writes, “The BBC had a whole series dedicated to ‘Black Britishness’ [Olusoga’s], which essentially amounted to propaganda for the idea that we are now accepted as part of the nation …” (Andrews, 2019: xiii).
My encounter with the woman on the street is one more example of racial privilege knowing full well that her Whiteness protected her from repercussions. Furthermore, whilst the ‘Karen’ meme started as a commentary on racial privilege (Williams, 2020) and White women in histories of racism (Ware, 1992), it’s a shame that is has been co-opted by people as a catch-all term for any woman that happens to annoy them. I think my encounter is certainly definable under the remits of the original Karen mythology, but there are those out there who would also argue my thoughts as misogynistic, namely because of what the mythology has become. In the UK, this mythology is “more proof the internet speaks American” (Lewis, 2020). And how Black Lives Matter is still spoken about is a reminder of the divides between anti-Blackness in the US and anti-Blackness in Britain. Yet, discourses on “Karen spotting” online also speak an American voice even though equivalents exist in Britain – especially in schools, colleges / universities and healthcare.
Those interested in the cultures of Black and Brown people; it would be more useful to ask about heritage over the racist “where are you from?”, as for me at least the latter is underpinned by racist binaries that say POCs cannot relate to ‘Anglo-Europeanness’, whilst the former speaks to the fluidity of an individual’s relationship with Home.
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— (2021). Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family, and Home. London: Pan.
Social Security. Top 5 Names in Each of the Last 100 Years.
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Ware, V. (1992) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History. London: Verso.
Williams, A. (2020) Black Memes Matter: #LivingWhileBlack With Becky and Karen. Social Media + Society. 6(4), pp. 1-14.
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Young, R.J.C. (1995) Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London: Routledge.