Op-Ed: Am I a Black Karen?
The other day a random pizza truck came through my neighborhood near Los Angeles midmorning, blaring specials from an amplified speaker: You could get a small pie for $5.99 or a large for $7.99 with toppings, including pineapple, which itself should be a crime.
The issue I had was how loud the sound was, and how it echoed for about 10 minutes as the truck snaked through adjacent streets. I was minding my business, eating my waffle and watching YouTube. But when I complained about the truck on my neighborhood Facebook page, people quickly came to the defense of the driver and that person’s right to earn a living.
At least two people who replied in the comments equated my reaction to that of a “Karen.”
Karen, as you may have heard, is a term typically applied to a white woman who calls the police on Black people, for such transgressions as falling asleep in a dorm at Yale, holding a picnic in a public park or — more ominously in the case of a Black birdwatcher in Central Park — asking that she put her dog on a leash. That video, which went viral, shows her on the phone with New York City authorities falsely claiming that the man was threatening her.
The consequences of a complaint from a Karen, as we know from history, can be deadly. One led to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. So, as a Black woman, I found it shocking for people to flippantly label me with a term freighted with such human tragedy, simply for expressing dismay at the noise pollution we all endure. I spoke up not only about by my own discomfort but also out of concern for the quality of life in my community.
In L.A., car alarms are constantly set off, police helicopters chase suspects in the middle of the night, and fireworks have been booming on and off since March. The din can be maddening. And apparently there was more to come, as police recently seized a 5,000-pound cache of fireworks nearby. Into that cacophony came the pizza truck hawking its wares.
That night I dreamt that I discovered an alligator sleeping in my backyard. I kept an eye on it for a while, then went back to whatever I was doing. Suddenly it was in the house, chasing my dog and me as we ran for our lives.
The dream, which turned into a nightmare, made me realize how deeply troubling it is to feel attacked. What I also realized was that the racket from the pizza truck, which I found overwhelming, might not have been heard at all by those at the other end of the hood, which caused them to perceive the incident differently: The food-truck driver was merely hustling to make a living in pandemic-strapped times, with restaurants shut down all over town.
The person passing through, they reasoned, might be someone’s mother or father, trying to feed a family. These are hard times. We have a neighborhood pantry hosted by a minister and his family, to which a number of us contribute, because the struggle is real.
Amid the more than 80 comments to my original post, I replied to one, suggesting that one individual’s right to earn a living and a community’s right to peace and quiet could coexist. We have people who come through selling tamales or elote (Mexican street corn), singing or squeaking a small horn, and neighbors rush out to buy their goods.
What I did not say in my response is that a person flagging a potential noise violation is not the same as a white person calling the cops on a Black person for no reason. As a Black woman in this society, I don’t have what it takes to be a Karen. But I can call out problems that concern me: illegal dumping, graffiti or a dangerous intersection that needs better signage.
A couple of years back, I questioned a taco truck’s decision to station itself on the edge of our neighborhood every night, emitting its jangly song, with an electronic sign that cycled through menu items, sending multicolored neon flashes into several homes.
When I commented on that on Facebook, some folks defended the food truck, which devolved into a chatty conversation about tacos. Our local officials, who sometimes peruse our neighborhood page to stay abreast of what’s going on or to share relevant information, apparently saw the complaint, and days later, new signs appeared on that block barring the parking of vehicles over a certain size.
So-called Karens — apologies to those who unfairly share the name — make a community worse by weaponizing race and using police to further their agenda. I speak out to enhance my neighborhood. That’s not being a Karen. That’s called being a citizen.
Pamela K. Johnson is a writer and filmmaker.
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