Donald Trump has made a few last-ditch overtures to suburban white women in his campaign’s final days — most notably, nominating to the Supreme Court Amy Coney Barrett, an extreme right-wing jurist wrapped in the patina of an archetypal suburban mom. But his pandering to women in wealthy suburbs ignores a key demographic of Trump supporters: Country Club Karen’s working-class counterpart, Walmart Karen.

White privilege is often associated with wealth: the “Karen” caricature is typically of a wealthy suburban mom with a signature haircut, brandishing anti-Black sentiment to further her needs. Quintessential “Karen” Amy Cooper, with her memorable rant against an African American birdwatcher, comes to mind. But a review of popular social media accounts documenting Karens Gone Wild shows that this understanding of white privilege is incomplete; Karen transcends social class. Walmart Karen exercises white privilege to harass Black Americans and safeguard white spaces.[1] And this working-class version of white privilege is equally, if not more, dangerous to Black Americans. Only when we address the dangers of working-class white privilege can we truly overcome white supremacy.

Walmart Karen is dangerous.

Unlike wealthier whites, Walmart Karen lacks the advantages afforded by money, educational attainment, and professional prestige; whiteness is her sole source of social currency. Thus, she is incentivized to cling to her whiteness, to preserve white supremacy — perhaps even more so than whites in higher social strata, whose privilege extends into other spheres too.[2] Walmart Karen may also rely financially on white men, granting Karen a semblance of adjacent male privilege while making her particularly susceptible to falling in line with those white men’s voting preferences. To top it off, Walmart Karen often has more contact with Black Americans than do wealthier whites, as her social class sometimes forces her to live in mixed communities.

Walmart Karen does significant racial labor for white supremacy, serving as its footsoldier. Her whiteness empowers her to eject Black Americans from white spaces, often wielding law enforcement to further her objectives. She relies on white privilege as a source of power, blinding her to her lower position on the overall social hierarchy.

Historians argue that Walmart Karen is underpaid for upholding white supremacy.

She labors for an economic order that does not serve her. As historian David Roediger explains, working-class whites gain very little economically in exchange for their work in Black subordination. Roediger notes, however, that whites are traditionally “compensated in part by a … public and psychological wage”: the Wage of Whiteness.[3] The status of whiteness historically functioned to counterbalance exploitative class relationships; white workers accepted their lower positions on the class totem pole by “fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and as ‘not Blacks’.”[4] As a result, the benefits conferred by whiteness helped poor whites swallow the pill of their class position and ignore their “practically identical interests” with the Black poor.[5] Supporting racial equality movements would mean surrendering their main source of privilege.

Still, white privilege pays economic dividends to some working-class whites.

Today’s whites hold staggeringly more intergenerational wealth than their Black peers: as of 2016, a typical white family’s net worth was $171,000, while a Black family’s was $17,150. White privilege, even for working-class whites, manifests as real estate benefits promoting white wealth. Whites also have better employment opportunities, thanks to social networks, unconscious bias in hiring, and occupational segregation.

Roediger suggests that Walmart Karen, left unchecked, will continue to subsidize our American Apartheid — but there are signs her enthusiasm could be waning.

Apartheid is a system that intentionally discourages solidarity between designated groups within an oppressed majority.[6] Minority rule under apartheid works because it grants different subgroups varying degrees of privilege. The subgroups are encouraged to maintain the hierarchy to protect their position above another group, even while the system as a whole oppresses them too. In the United States, working-class whites are fed a narrative that they are a rung above people of color on the ladder of opportunity — and, thus, that solidarity with racial justice movements is antithetical to their interests.[7]

COVID-19 may be a wakeup call for Walmart Karen: the pandemic has made clear that the economic order does not serve working-class whites.

America’s stunning unemployment rates, accelerated by the pandemic, are hurting groups already struggling with joblessness wrought by deindustrialization and service industry depopulation — groups like working-class whites. The rung above Black Americans on the social ladder is not putting food on Walmart Karen’s table.

Alternatively, perhaps working-class whites simply can no longer stomach the police violence that facilitates their white currency.

Watching police kill George Floyd horrified many white Americans — quite a distinction from the sense of white safety that had accompanied lynchings past. The murders of Floyd and others have sparked a national reckoning for white Americans. White support for the Black Lives Matter movement has spiked, while white support for President Trump has eroded — though it is not yet clear what this means for our greater political fortunes.

For generations, racial justice advocates have struggled to persuade white Americans to reject whiteness’s illicit benefits in favor of racial equality. But the strategy for overcoming our current cultural impasse is becoming clear. Progressives must welcome working-class whites to anti-racism work with open arms, incorporating their economic concerns into the fight for racial equality. Working-class whites, in turn, must reject the tantalizing pill of white supremacy that Trump dangles to command their allegiance. Political operatives will traffic in the Wages of Whiteness as long as doing so will seduce Walmart Karen’s loyalty — but despite Trump’s romanticization of the past, America was never particularly great for poor whites. Walmart Karen’s awakening could be a seismic shift in the struggle for racial equality.[8]

[1] There is almost certainly misogyny underlying Karen’s lack of a similarly-satirized white male counterpart, but that’s a story for another day.

[2]  Malone, Clare. “A Tale of Two Suburbs.” , 8 Apr. 2019, fivethirtyeight.com/features/a-tale-of-two-suburbs/. (“Class means more than how much money you make or whether you went to college. It encompasses your understanding of racial identity — your own and that of others — and your perceptions of history, whether you look favorably or unfavorably on the country’s evolution.”).

[3] Roediger, David R. . Verso, 2007, p. 12.

[4]  at 13.

[5] 

[6] Apartheid has most famously been deployed in more formally entrenched racial hierarchies, including South Africa’s apartheid.  Noah, Trevor. . Spiegel & Grau, 2016.

[7] Roediger,  note 3, at 8. (“[W]orking class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the US white working class.”).

[8] Dahlum, Sirianne, et al. “We Checked 100 Years of Protests in 150 Countries. Here’s What We Learned about the Working Class and Democracy.” , 24 Oct. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/24/we-checked-years-protests-countries-heres-what-we-learned-about-working-class-democracy/. (“Industrial workers have been key agents of democratization and, if anything, are even more important than the urban middle classes. When industrial workers mobilize mass opposition against a dictatorship, democratization is very likely to follow.”).

Link to Op Ed:

https://jgkvedar.medium.com/election-2020-an-awakening-for-walmart-karen-493e94cabcfd

This week was a double barrel blast to the notion that what American politics needs is more “likeable,” ever-smiling, milquetoast women.  Instead the nation’s attention was riveted as two steel-willed women heeded the call of the House of Representatives and appeared at impeachment hearings to do the hard work of reclaiming our democracy.   Ambassador Marie Yovanavich and Foreign Affairs Specialist Fiona Hill for a brief moment seemed to leapfrog over the “likeability” factor that has sandbagged American Presidential candidates, hobbled our most accomplished politicians and driven women from public life.  When the stakes were high America temporarily suspended it’s demand for female smiles and pleas for acceptance.  In that moment we got a glimpse of our future and our promise.  Unlikeable women just may be what is needed to save American democracy.

Regardless of one’s political party, one could not help but be stunned by the enormous patriotism, staunch reserve and the non-partisan, just the facts presentation of both witnesses.  Both provided credible evidence of issues that raise impeachment concerns. Dr. Yovanovitch spent decades fighting Ukranian corruption overseas only to see her efforts reduced to a school yard jibe from the President that she was “bad news.”  The move to eliminate her and clear the path for a more pliable ambassador attentive to the President’s personal interests only made her strength more clear.  Also, Dr. Hill, a Harvard-trained Russia specialist, who is widely recognized as a leading expert in the field, documented how American foreign policy interests with Ukraine were being reduced and compromised by the President’s insistence that public officials attend to what was actually a domestic “political errand.”  We were and rightly should be aghast at these accomplished women’s reduction to mere trivial characterizations and assignment to trivial tasks.

As gender studies scholars we are all too familiar with the Hilary Clinton problem of American Presidential politics.  Clinton did not invent this problem but she has come to represent it.  It is also referred to in some contexts as the ‘double bind’: women must seem likeable to American voters (meaning soft and feminine) to get votes, but if they are too likeable voters will not trust them to do the hard work of running the free world.   As a result female politicians whip saw back and forth between likeability and stoicism – a problem that then makes them seem inauthentic to American voters.   Hill and Yovanavitch may come to represent the moment when we clear away the likeability cobwebs that cloud our assessment of female strength and leadership. America can now see clearly as a result of the examples they provided.

Certainly the spectre of sexism loomed in press coverage.  There is nothing some press pundits love more than proof of an emotional woman.  Ample press time was spend on Ambassador Sondland’s account that Dr. Hill as “shaking” and “upset” when she confronted him about his participation in Guiliani’s mission in Ukraine to launch an investigation into the Biden family. Also ample time was spent on Dr. Yovanavitch’s comment that she “turned white” and the blood drained from her face when she heard Trump’s characterization of her activities.  It seemed that these strong women in some accounts would be reduced to mere moments when they seemed capable of dissolving into tears or suffering a fainting spell.  Yet we submit that neither of these moments of emotion were sufficient to distract from the picture of strength these women painted for the American people

Furthermore, the adoption of truly feminist values means that emotion gets credited in political debates.  It is not as a distraction. Rather, when displayed in measured tones, it can be a source of insight. For example, we should recoil in horror at the notion of keeping children cages. Feminist values should make us reassess the ‘emotion’ attacks levied against female candidates on the Presidential debate stage and in our political commentary.  Should we credit Joe Biden’s allegation that Elizabeth Warren is too angry?  Will Kamala Harris fall prey to the angry woman stereotype too as a way of discrediting he?   Dr. Hill acknowledged that women who become angry are perceived as “emotional,” irrespective of whether such anger is grounded in deep concerns about urgent threats to national security. She is right.  Instead of asking whether Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar are angry we might do better to ask what they are angry about.  Instead of asking whether they are too angry we might do better to ask why are our male candidates so sanguine and affably optimistic about the state of American democracy and politics.

We suspect many Americans are ready and willing to break the old mold of leadership in favor of a new day. We suspect they are capable of seeing female strength and assessing emotion intelligently, in both women and men. And we fear the future for an America that refuses to see strong, competent women as likeable, competent and electable.  The examples are before us.  The time has come to ask whether the American voter is a likeable character, for we will not like ourselves very much if we lose a generation of essential female leadership because of America’s unhealthy attachment to gender stereotyping.

The troubling implications of our favorite quarantine distraction

There is one thing, aside from COVID-19, that is monopolizing my group discussions right now: Tiger King. It is a Netflix documentary series exploring the outrageous and often illegal escapades of a group of for-profit exotic animal breeders. The show centers around a gun-toting, mullet-wearing, gay tiger breeder named Joe Exotic.

While the show’s plot itself is admittedly shocking and bizarre, there is an undercurrent of social class voyeurism that contributes to making the show so gossip-worthy.[1] Social class in America is a taboo discussion topic; we politely ignore its existence, instead of referencing imperfect proxies like race, education, and profession. Even while refusing to acknowledge that we live in a class hierarchy, however, many Americans limit their interactions to people in their own class.[2] Our self-selection reinforces the invisibility of social class in our daily lives.[3]

This is part of what makes Tiger King so fascinating: it gives members of higher social strata a “safe” glimpse into a social class other than their own. It is the same reason we love following the Kardashians and the Real Housewives. We have limited real-life exposure to other social classes, and we are naturally curious about how their lives compare to ours.

In my social circles, we are in our mid-to-late twenties and live in large, coastal cities. We go wine tasting and travel to Europe. We have skincare routines and listen to podcasts and overpay for restaurant items featuring avocado or truffle. We all have straight, white teeth. Each of these is both a signal to new acquaintances in the same social class — “I am one of you” — and fodder for shared discussion, for mutual understanding.[4] The same cues that draw us to one another based on the inherent comfort of similarity also reinforce beliefs of our social class as “normal” and lower social classes as “other.”

Immediately upon starting Tiger King, we recognize that most of the cast members do not belong to our class. They come from a certain subset of the rural, white lower class to which we rarely have access. They are missing teeth; they have tattoos; they eschew both social and grammatical correctness. They shop at Walmart and ride motorcycles. At times, the display of these characteristics feels particularly intentional: cast members are interviewed while shirtless in trailers; cameras zoom in on tattoo sleeves and rotting teeth and cigarette-wielding hands. Each of these is a cue to folks with more privilege that “they” are not “us.”

This is why Tiger King provides such a delicious escape for us, particularly at this moment when we are all desperate to escape from reality. With Tiger King, we can skip the discomfort of real, in-person interactions with those in a lower social class than ours — interactions in which we would feel out of place and unsure of behavioral norms. We can entertain ourselves with their poverty from a safe, CDC-approved distance.

This class tourism may not be as harmless as it seems. Social class resentment, though rarely acknowledged as such, plays a significant role in the polarized nature in our politics. We use terms such as “working-class whites” and “the rust belt” when we really intend to signify social class. We discuss discontent directed at “coastal elites,” when we really mean anger is directed higher up on the social totem pole. Hiding in plain sight in Tiger King, behind Joe Exotic’s outrageous antics, is the appalling plight of the operations’ employees. Many have struggled with addiction, incarceration, and homelessness; they submit to abusive employment at these animal operations because of their dearth of alternatives. They are the key to understanding our divided politics.

Class resentment informs electoral choices. Social class factors into why my social circles overwhelmingly supported Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, but neither candidate made meaningful headway in the Democratic primary.[5] Both candidates speak in the language of the academy, discussing complex political issues with nuance and eloquence.[6] Their professorial approach feels familiar to the highly educated, but perhaps strikes as elitist the nearly two-thirds of the country without a bachelor’s degree.[7]

Donald Trump, despite his celebrity and education and wealth, speaks in the language of a lower social class. His rhetoric, generally free of academic jargon, is simple — “build the wall” — and laced with resentment for the status quo — “lock her up.” His approach has undoubtedly appealed to many disaffected white, lower-social-class individuals like those serving as our entertainment in Tiger King. These folks have few options for an upward social trajectory and harbor significant discontent towards the establishment.[8]

Herein lies the sinister link between the rise of Trumpism and our seeking distraction in the poverty of the white lower class. As uncritical Tiger King viewers, we utilize the less fortunate for amusement, while doing nothing to improve the inequities that first led to our disparate places in the social hierarchy. We must start to talk about social class in less euphemistic ways; to acknowledge that it is real, it permeates our culture, and it has consequences. We may limit our interactions with those in other social classes, but they still have an impact on our lives and we on theirs. There is nothing like a pandemic to shine a spotlight on this reality.

Far beyond its entertainment value, Tiger King provides us with an important glimpse into the lives of pivotal 2020 voters. How might Joe’s employees benefit from universal healthcare, from ban-the-box movements, from addiction treatment reform? We must learn to speak not only about issues important to this demographic but in a manner more resonant to them; polished, academic prose is likely not the winning strategy. We must also substitute empathy and humility for the condescension with which we sometimes discuss the lower class. We were social distancing from these individuals before it was cool; it is time we start listening to them.


[1] VanArendonk, Kathryn. “A Debate About Tiger King Between Me and Myself.” Vulture, 26 Mar. 2020, www.vulture.com/2020/03/is-tiger-king-on-netflix-good.html; see also Andrade, Gabriel. “What Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’ Teaches Us about Race and Class in America.” Merion West, 2 Apr. 2020, merionwest.com/2020/04/02/what-netflixs-tiger-king-teaches-us-about-race-and-class-in-america/; Pollard, Alexandra. “Is Tiger King Just a Celebration of Abuse?” The Independent, 6 Apr. 2020, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/tiger-king-netflix-joe-exotic-carole-baskin-saff-lilligers-animal-rights-a9446221.html.

[2] Côté, Stéphane, and Michael W. Kraus. “Crossing Class Lines.” The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/opinion/sunday/crossing-financial-lanes.html (“[P]eople tend to interact almost exclusively with people who share similar educational histories, incomes and occupations — and when they do interact with others from different social classes, even as friends, those relationships seem fraught with misunderstanding and tension.”).

[3] Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Viking, 2016, p. 7 (“Americans do not like to talk about class. It is not supposed to be important in our history. It is not who we are.”); “Social Class as Culture.” Association for Psychological Science, 8 Aug. 2011, www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/social-class-as-culture.html (noting that although Americans “think class is irrelevant,” recent “studies are saying the opposite: [t]his is a profound part of who we are.”) (quoting Dacher Keltner).

[4] See generally Kraus, Michael W., et al. “Signs of Social Class: The Experience of Economic Inequality in Everyday Life.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 12,3 (2017): 422–435. doi:10.1177/1745691616673192.

[5] Yglesias, Matthew. “Why Elizabeth Warren Is Losing Even as White Professionals Love Her.” Vox, 3 Mar. 2020, www.vox.com/2020/3/3/21162527/what-happened-to-elizabeth-warren.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.; US Census Bureau. “CPS Historical Time Series Tables.” The United States Census Bureau, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/educational-attainment/cps-historical-time-series.html.

[8] Kraus et al., supra note 4, at 431 (noting that many lower class individuals have “come to distrust a political system that ignores their own daily economic struggles.”); Andrade, supra note 1.

Photo credit: ©Netflix