The symbolic power of the Karen

COMMENT

Although Jim Crow laws have long been abolished in the United States, the lynching of black lives at the hands of white power continues with fervour. The murder of George Floyd — a 46-year-old, unarmed black man — on May 25 by a white police officer is reminiscent of the murder of Eric Garner who too pleaded for his life by beseeching “I can’t breathe.” It is reminiscent of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jordan Edwards, Atatiana Jefferson and thousands more who have been engulfed by the flames of white power and privilege.

The post-civil rights era is defined by colour-blindness such that white American society simultaneously embraces, consumes and glorifies African-American culture while marginalising, oppressing and excluding African-American people from its wealth and power. White people are able to enjoy the fruits of black labour and maintain racial domination by separating those cultural forms from the black bodies, black imagination and black creativity that cultivated them. 

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talks about symbolic violence, symbolic power and misrecognition of capital. This is integral to understanding this racial paradox as well as the endurance and reproduction of white racial domination. 

According to Bourdieu, political struggle is symbolic, political power is symbolic capital, and whoever holds stores of this capital has the authority to name the principles that structure society and determine the distribution of the various types of capital within it. 

Consequently, the struggle for black lives and prosperous black futures must incorporate the destruction of so-called “legitimate” social classifications, since it is these arbitrary racial hierarchies that feed the symbolic domination of white people over people of colour.  


For Bourdieu, the “habitus” includes the norms, strategies, languages, cultures and beliefs that define our behaviour in social fields. And all fields — whether art, education or religion — represent a network of power relations in which the struggle among agents is about a favourable distribution of capital.  Where these fields differ are the compositions of different types of capital fought over, namely: economic, social and cultural capital. 

Cultural capital is perhaps the most complex. It is noted by academics Michèle Lamont and Annette Lareau, that it is the “institutionalised, widely shared, high status cultural signals used for social and cultural exclusion” , with this exclusion linked to domination and racialised privilege. 

Racialised privilege works through a lens of colour-blindness. Whiteness is the taken-for-granted set of norms, values, aesthetics and patterns of behaviour against which all other races are measured and judged. In Black Hawk Hancock’s paper, titled “Put a Little Colour on That!” white racial identity is shown to be completely removed from discourses on race so that everyone is raced except for whites, in essence making whiteness invisible and white skin “raceless”. 

The cultural capital of whiteness and the power to exploit that capital by marginalising and oppressing “other” races through shaping the racial order is thus the performance of a norm and is a quiet and invasive power. It is the symbolic power of white privilege. 

It is the unearned, unseen and unacknowledged privileges of whiteness that enable white people to exist outside the racial sphere and not have to consider how race positions them in society or affects their life chances. It includes one’s race being represented frequently and positively in the media, the security that access to resources will not be prevented because of one’s race, and it means never having to prepare your children for a racialised existence of mental and physical suffering on a daily basis. 

The case of Amy Cooper

In the same week as George Floyd’s murder, a white woman named Amy Cooper threatened to call the police on a black man, Christian Cooper (not related) who was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park after he asked her to leash her dog. She threatened him by saying “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life” and then proceeded to call the police while dramatising feeling scared and vulnerable. Cooper’s performative whiteness is reflective of the gendered role of white women in a racialised society. 

The “Karen” as an object of analysis explains the role of white women in society and the reward they receive in the form of social capital in their communities. Furthermore, it also shows that the symbolic power of white privilege, covert and almost invisible, is equally violent and perhaps more powerful than other forms of power.

Karen represents the Amy Coopers of the world, the white women who themselves “are not racist”, but who draw on the racial polity of whiteness and the mythical norms of white as “positive”, “light”, “purity” and “beauty” where the “other” is savage, backward and exotic. Karen avoids using racial slurs, she claims reverse-racism and shouts that “All lives matter” in response to a Black Lives Matter protest. She is the woman who will protest the religious slaughter of a sheep for Eid-ul-Adha but will not protest the onslaught on black lives. 

Amy Cooper is a Karen. She played to the illusion of innocence of whiteness — the damsel-in-distress narrative of the white woman faced with the brown savage — and tried to leverage the symbolic power of her white privilege against a black man. Karen uses the gendered role of vulnerability assigned to her in the familial field, but her role in reproducing white domination is by no means passive. 

White women’s tears are acid rain on the black and brown soil of the Earth and Amy Cooper knew the symbolic power she was wielding with her “vulnerability”. So too did Carolyn Bryant when she falsely accused 14-year-old Emmit Till of harassing her, resulting in his brutal death in 1955. 

Sinking to knees, Mrs Mamie Bradley weeps as body of slain son, Emmett Louis Till, 14 arrives at Chicago Rail Station. The youth was found dead in a Mississippi creek with a bullet hole behind the ear. Being sought in connection with the slaying is Mrs. Roy Bryant, at whom the youth is supposed to have whistled a “wolf call”. Held also are store keeper Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam. With the bereaved woman are left to right, Bishop Louis J. Ford; Gene Mabley; and Bishop Isiak Roberts, of St. Paul’s Church of Christ and God.

Karen’s white privilege is a form of cultural capital that, once recognised as such, gives her symbolic capital, which is the legitimised use of her white privilege.  Essentially, the mutual recognition — by the dominant and dominated groups — of the arbitrary distribution of the other types of capital (social, economic and cultural) as legitimate, issues a person with symbolic capital such as honour, prestige or recognition. 

When this symbolic capital is exploited, the dominant group sets the principles that determine societal norms. These “truths” or norms are internalised to the extent that they become bodily dispositions of habitus and, therefore, racialised domination occurs through symbolic violence. Symbolic power is, therefore, a power nexus of knowledge and recognition that works almost unconsciously within cognitive structures. 

The violence of symbolic power exists in its opacity, its ability to act without being seen and in its internalisation in the cognitive structures and bodily dispositions of dominated groups. Unlike economic capital that is not easily disguised, symbolic capital and power is naturally concealed, making it more difficult to deconstruct. Because it is symbolic and, therefore, the use of that capital is seen as legitimate within society, white people are able to weaponise their symbolic power against black and brown people without repercussions. 

Although it seems that racialised domination, white privilege and the symbolic power of whiteness are too entrenched within society and within the bodies and dispositions of people to overcome, Bourdieu notes that the ahistorised construction of the social order — which enables it to be seen as self-evident — is essential to the endurance of white symbolic power. 

This illuminates a path to dismantling a violent social organisation that exists within our cognition and conceptualisations of the world. A political struggle against racialised domination would, therefore, need to be a symbolic struggle; a struggle about the principles that are used to “di-vision” social fields, set societal norms and distribute the different types of capital within society. 

A successful political struggle will, therefore, need to include the redistribution of symbolic capital to deconstruct the symbolic violence of white privilege and to put Karens in their place, once and for all. 

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Khadija Abass
Khadija Abass is reading towards a master’s in global studies at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg. She works with Direct Aid International.
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