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. 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. 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. 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’.” 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. 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. 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.
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.