Calling Out the Karens in the Jewish Community
Recently, new slang has blown up that highlights the entitlement of the middle-aged white woman, aka the “Karen.” On the Internet, Karens are mocked for their mullet-combover hairstyles and for asking to speak to the manager when their fast food order is incorrect. But as meme-able as she is, the Karen is part of a larger historical conversation about the culpability of cisgender white women in upholding white supremacy in often quieter, but no less violent, ways than white men do. Historically, Karen’s authority and gendered fear of Black men has had devastating consequences.
Perhaps most famously, 21-year-old white woman Carolyn Bryant’s accusation of unwarranted flirtation from a Black teenager named Emmett Till resulted in his lynching by a group of white men in 1955. Just a few weeks ago, another woman named Amy Cooper called police claiming an “African American man” was harassing her, actively choosing to weaponize her whiteness so she wouldn’t have to follow park rules. It was only sheer luck that Christian Cooper, the Black man she targeted, didn’t become another Emmett Till at the hands of police. White women like Bryant and Cooper, unarmed as they usually are, instead use the violence of their words to directly endanger and harm Black lives.
How can we examine the “Karen” phenomenon in a Jewish context? How do we, as Jewish women and femmes, contribute to anti-Blackness? The answer lies in the history of American Jewry. As early as the 1900s, Central European Jews (as distinct from Eastern European Jews—even within European Jewry, ethnic tensions and hierarchies existed) began assimilating into the American fold.
It is important to understand that in the American context, assimilation is synonymous with whiteness. Women like Edna Ferber, a Jewish feminist writer in the 1920s, represent a demographic of Jewish culturalists who, at the time, were navigating their own identities while also navigating their relationship with racial justice and the adjacent acculturated Black community. The 1920s was a unique period of political upheaval in the United States, ensuring a particularly violent brand of white supremacy, which heavily affected the way Black and Jewish communities functioned and interacted with each other politically. Slavery had been abolished just decades before, and two seemingly disconnected mass migrations were occurring: that of newly freed slaves from the South to the North and that of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to northern cities like New York and Chicago. The two communities lived in close quarters in these northern cities and were forced to construct their relationship in light of pressures to assimilate and to shed their Blackness and Jewishness.
As a newly acculturated Jewish artist, Edna Ferber engaged with issues of class, race, and gender in her literary works. Impacted by experiences of antisemitism in her youth, Ferber confronted identity in her novels. This profound confrontation cemented Ferber’s reputation as a radical, enduring writer: biographers and Jewish academics have praised Ferber for her socialist voice, and even JWA’s encyclopedia lauds Ferber’s “profound love of justice,” which she expressed through the construction of strong female protagonists and defiant gender roles. Edna Ferber’s own intersecting identities—“Jewish,” “woman”—and their impact on her movement in the world obviously played a role in her dedication to justice and feminist characters.
Ferber’s position on racial issues, however, are problematic, even if they’re reflective of the times. Her 1926 novel Showboat, which was later turned into a beloved musical under Jewish composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, centers the Hawk family and their lives on the Cotton Blossom, a traveling showboat sailing down the Mississippi River in the early 1910s. The novel captures Ferber’s fascination with salt-of-the-earth, working class America.
This fascination is epitomized through the eyes of the young daughter Magnolia, who obsessively watches the nightly audiences assembling, beholding “the moving living drama of a nation’s peasantry.” Ferber lumps Black Americans in the fold of the working class which is reflective of a perception of race as an economic class—perhaps lingering from the end of slavery—and less so a social reality. Because Black people remain a piece in the puzzle, but not individual characters, Ferber’s most visibly Black characters are minor staff whom she outwardly describes in dehumanizing and animalistic terms, drawing on the same stereotypes that led to the violent lynching of Black men in the South at the time.
The only central Black character in the storyline with any real plot development is Julie Dozier, the headlining actress in the boat’s nightly plays. Julie is described as having “sallow” coloring, alluding to her mixed heritage. Even still, Julie is so light-skinned that the news of her being a mixed African American comes as a shock to everyone. The Hawks, the owners of the showboat, turn out to be neither martyrs nor saviors, because they have Julie leave the boat the first chance they get.
Edna Ferber’s novel Showboat is an attempt to engage with the racial landscape of America, but one that maintains a romanticized and subordinate image of Black Americans. Much like Amy Cooper, whose ironic liberal political leanings have been examined by several academics like Musa al-Gharbi, Edna Ferber is a wealthy, educated white woman whose racial comprehension falls short—a “Karen.” Ferber had close ties with Black culturalists at the time, like Zora Neale Hurston who she supported philanthropically, and yet she failed to accurately underscore the developing identity discourse of the 1920s through her work. Her writings are emblematic of not only the Jewish woman’s role in racial injustice, but also of the historic Black-Jewish relationship and how white Jews may still hold patronizing views towards Black people while believing we have a stake in their liberation as Jews.
The history of white Jewish women upholding white supremacy didn’t end in the 1900s and doesn’t stop at patronizing or furthering Black stereotypes. A few years ago, beloved Jewish singer and actress Bette Midler published a tweet saying women are the “N-word of the earth,” a nod to the 1972 John Lennon and Yoko Ono song, essentially erasing the existence of Black women altogether. When I saw the tweet, my feminist Jewish heart winced. Midler grew up in a generation of feminists who promised to smash the patriarchy, but not structural racism. It was a feminism that protected the petite, feminine white body, but not the fat, Black, disabled, or trans body.
Amy Cooper weaponized whiteness in defense of herself, Ferber utilized race to enhance her storyline, and Midler co-opted racist language to uplift white womanhood. Karens operate on a spectrum of covert racism to uphold white supremacy, sometimes unknowingly. White Jews cannot avoid this reality and must interrogate the exclusivity of our language and structures within the Jewish community, which tend to standardize and center whiteness. Our sanctuaries and cultural spaces are still replete with racial microaggressions, despite the recognition that Jews are a multiracial people. In the last few weeks, Jewish publications have been churning out dozens of articles revealing horror stories from Jews of color. Chana Hall, an Orthodox-raised Black Jew from California, wrote a piece in the Jewish Journal to reflect on traumatic experiences of hearing racial slurs and being bullied in her Jewish day school as a child, forcing her to eventually switch schools. A single Google search of articles written by Jews of color highlights that many Jews who identify as such carry similar stories of alienation.
That’s why organizations like Jewish Multiracial Network and Be’chol Lashon stand as resources and platforms for Jews of color to express their Jewishness and have their voices continually heard—not just in moments of trauma, but in all aspects of their lives. I recommend visiting Be’chol Lashon’s website, which currently features dozens of powerful quotes from Black Jews expressing their identities and describing their struggle to liberate themselves from both antisemitism and racism. One contributor to their blog, Ayeola Omolara Kaplan, writes: “...I did everything I could to avoid being seen as a strange little Black Jewish girl. I realized that asserting my identity was a revolutionary act, as well as an act of liberation.”
I hope to see a world in which multiracial Jews are not only normalized, but also uplifted, and in which white Ashkenazi Jews work to end our complicity in white supremacy—but to achieve that, we must do more than just acknowledge our privilege. We must confront our proximity to whiteness and the responsibility that comes with that privilege on a daily basis. We must call out the Karens, or rather the Deborahs and Judys, of our inner circles. We must hold our bubbes, aunts, cousins, mothers, friends, and, most importantly, ourselves accountable for the internal anti-Blackness we undoubtedly hold. Many of us think of ourselves as feminists or liberals, similarly to Edna Ferber. We may vote blue, but how many of us praise the presence of police in our synagogues, ignoring the trauma of our Black congregants? How many of us consume Black culture and music, but don’t invest in and support Black community efforts? Anti-racism is not a political affiliation or a title; it is a daily, conscious effort to question and dismantle the white-washed beliefs our education system and culture have fed us. We are not absolved of our white womanhood just because we are Jewish, and we must begin to confront that truth if we are truly to stand with the Black community.