Why ‘Karen’ memes and “OK, Boomer” insults stereotype people we don’t really know
By Chloé Johnston
Show a people as one thing, and only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
On a slow Sunday afternoon, I found myself half-heartedly engaged with work while talking with a coworker about our anxious anticipation of finals weeks, a distant thought now. Until, that is, the door opened.
A woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, approached the counter. All three of us struck up a conversation, moving through the latest fashion to high health care costs and landing on the shooting by a Saudi soldier on a military base in Pensacola, Fla.
The conversation was pleasant, as was the woman. When she talked, you could tell she was a person who cared. But in discussing the Pensacola shooting, she casually said, “I’ve realized I’m somewhat xenophobic.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, but my coworker asked, “What does xenophobic mean?”
“It means the fear of foreigners,” the woman said.
We sat in stunned silence. And realizing the conversation was over, the woman said a polite goodbye and left.
Throughout this exchange, I didn’t think she was a bad person, not even at the end. Quite the contrary, I liked this lady — she had spunk and enthusiasm — but the encounter puzzled me. How could someone, who so obviously cared about people, hold such an opinion? What made this woman fear foreigners?
I revisited the conversation several times to gather my thoughts. The woman had mentioned having a husband on active military duty in the 1970s, when the Vietnam war and its aftermath shaped a generation. She also had experienced the shock and fear of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I also thought about flashbulb memories — shaped by experiences so profound that even minor details are recalled years later. For tens of millions of Americans, 9/11 is a flashbulb memory. And for some, it’s a memory that has fostered, or perhaps deepened, a fear of foreigners.
For those not yet born or too young to remember 9/11, the fear of foreign terrorism doesn’t carry the same weight as it does for older generations. For my generation, it’s the fear of being shot at school, in a movie theater or in a nightclub that shapes our view of the world.
Active shooting drills start in elementary school (my 9-year-old sister now participates in them) and continue into college.
The memories that have shaped me come from watching the news on my living room floor, feeling distraught about the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook Elementary.
I realized that the woman I met that Sunday was like me. She has been shaped by her fears and experiences, but where she fears “outsiders,” I fear those from within who shoot innocent people in schools, theaters and houses of worship.
A second difficult encounter with an older person also highlights an intergenerational divide. On a flight from Dallas, I sat next to a rude man who appeared to be pushing 70.
After a weekend of sleepless nights and great conversations, I was riding a high, which exhibited itself as a stream of consciousness that I poured out to the friend nearest to me on the plane. We hadn’t been able to secure seats next to one another, but I continued to talk, as I do.
The plane had yet moved, but I could sense the frustration roll off of the man sitting next to me.
I didn’t see a problem with conversing across another person before the plane took off. That is until heard the man say, “Would you be quiet! I’m tired of hearing your voice. I don’t want hear it anymore.”
I attempted a rebuttal but was shut down with, “I said I don’t want to hear your voice anymore.” My face began to color with rage.
I said in the politest words I could find, “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, but you are being extremely rude. Now I’m going to finish my conversation with my friend, and only then will I stop talking.”
As I choked this out, the man said, “Didn’t your parents ever teach you that talking across someone is rude?”
I swallowed my pride, as I sat next to this man for the next two hours, face turned to the air vent holding back tears as best as I could.
When the plane landed, I was offered a half-hearted apology, and then the man gave a more sincere apology to my male friend.
For weeks, I tried to forgive and forget this man who made me feel so insignificant. I tried hard not to transfer feelings of borderline hatred onto other people of his age and gender. Because, although I knew not everyone is like him, I also knew I never wanted to feel that helpless and alone again.
It wasn’t until I remembered a conversation I once had with my grandmother, that I moved forward.
More than once my grandmother has remarked at how vocal children are now, because growing up in the 1950s, children were “seen and not heard.”
But I was raised to speak out, not to be silent.
The rift in communication between the man and me stemmed from a fundamental difference in upbringing. His question of “didn’t your parents teach you this” seemed off-base because I wasn’t acting out of disrespect.
My point in illustrating these encounters is to acknowledge that people are a product of their upbringing and the events that shaped their narrative. Until we’re confronted with differing ideals, we remain unaware of the bubbles we live in.
Years ago, I was introduced to the concept of a single story through the eloquent words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her TedxTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” introduces how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, especially as children.
The single story is this: when you show a people as one thing, and only one thing repeatedly, that is what they become. This single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true, but that they are incomplete, which makes the one story become the only story.
As a consequence, the single story robs people of dignity, makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
My impression of these two people was based on a single story. I felt angered at older individuals, creating a divide between generations within me.
That divide has been reinforced through online encounters, off-putting interviews and “OK, Boomer” memes. Memes like the overused “Karen” putdowns, aimed at middle-age white women, have become a socially accepted way of promoting stereotypes and bigotry.
The woman I met on that Sunday afternoon, ironically enough, is named Karen. Our image of her, based on this stereotype, is not necessarily untrue, but it is incomplete. Yes, she may walk and talk like and, actually be, a Karen, but there’s more to her story.
So, let’s jump out of our fish bowl, into a larger body of water and begin to explore our own stories and the stories of others.
Let’s gather more than one perspective by having conversations with people you disagree with. Let’s learn to listen and not to respond, to approach people with open hearts and minds, and to converse without trying to change the other person.
Let’s start with empathy and understanding, because with these two things it is possible to move beyond what we assume to be true and truly listen to people different than ourselves.
To allow them to be more than just a single story.
This piece was originally published as an Op-Ed with USA Today.
About the Author
Chloé Johnston is the Counterweight Editor and Graphic Designer for the BridgeUSA National Team. She more recently graduated from Oregon State University with her Honors Bachelor of Science in Psychology. In her free time, she freelances and writes for her blog, The Extroverted Introvert.