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The book of rules for ‘Karen’, South Africa’s (in...

Maverick Citizen

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The book of rules for ‘Karen’, South Africa’s (in)famous white woman

A new book by one of Maverick Citizen’s regular writers examines the spectre of the demanding white woman called ‘Karen’. Maverick Citizen interviewed Karin Schimke, co-author with Karen Jeynes of The Karen Book of Rules.

What exactly is ‘The Karen Book of Rules’ about?

It’s social commentary light. The first part is a mix of history about where the infamous Karen meme comes from and an explanation of its layers of meaning, while the second section is a tongue-in-cheek — but only the tip of the tongue — old-fashioned etiquette guide with a modern twist. It’s humorous and interactive (quizzes, lists and games), and it provides, we hope, a non-threatening pause in which to consider the very fraught socio-political moment that 2020 has been.

Where did the idea come from?

Two places. I’d travelled to Israel in 2018 and it was the first time I’d been away from South Africa in more than a decade. I was struck again, like I always am, by how the concept of “manners” differs from country to country, and people to people.

I’ve been fascinated by books on etiquette since I was young. Whenever I found one, I’d page through it, enthralled by the many ways I failed at being acceptable.

For months after travelling, I circled the idea of whether such a thing as “universal good manners” existed, while also contemplating the power dynamics of social mores. Who makes the rules and who gets to decide those are the right ones?

During this time, the Karen meme really started to emerge from the virtual backwaters into mainstream consciousness. I began to wonder how the two things swirling in my head could be married, especially at those times when I was irritated by things other people did in public — like have loud Skype meetings in coffee shops, or Facetime-ing with their buddies while in the gym change rooms — and I questioned whether my irritation was because I was literally being an entitled Karen, or because they were being rude.

The two ideas sound like an awkward marriage. 

They were. But the idea wouldn’t go away like good-mannered ideas are meant to. I approached Karen Jeynes late last year because I needed someone I thought I could trust with this half-formed thing. I asked her specifically because I knew if this was to be a book, we’d have to handle it with lightness, and she’s a brilliant comedy writer and, of course, she’s an actual Karen.

It was Karen’s idea to “harness your Karen power for good”, which is what the book ends up being about.

White women have a lot more power than they might know. How they use that power is what will define their personal legacies. Did they squander it on self-focused fights with retail staff and service providers? Or did they try to do things, however small, to make the world marginally better?

‘Good manners’ and etiquette are such provocative concepts. Is this a book about rules like which glass to use for which drink and/or opening doors for ladies?

The conclusion I came to after a lot of reading and thinking was that ideas about what good manners are seemed to develop around three main areas: hygiene, our relationship to the imagined space around people’s bodies, and the way in which we communicate.

The book delves into those areas in greater detail and it tries to make the point that if we are aware that these are the basics of not being a kak person, we’d all be able to practise good manners.

The flip side of that, for people like Karen who like to assume that the world wakes up to personally piss them off each morning, is that we should operate from a position of assuming good intention.

Although, of course, we also need to weigh up the current considerations about “intent” versus “effect”, which is another social flashpoint as we try to navigate the curly edges of low-key (as opposed to overt) white supremacy.

Generally, people want to get along, they don’t want to annoy, insult or irritate others. On a very basic level, cooperation is necessary for survival. Assuming bad intent is probably not just wrong a lot of the time, but it creates conflict where none is necessary.

On the other hand, you can’t just glide through life not meaning any harm, but not considering the effect of your actions.

Emily Post, an American “etiquette expert” who was writing towards the beginning of the previous century, said: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”

If we extend the concept of “the feelings of others” to groups and to the natural world, and not limit it to the interpersonal, the world might, in fact, be a little more bearable than it has been in the past decade.

At any rate, I hope the book is provocative on many levels.

We have some serious problems in the world right now. Are you proposing that having good manners will make things get better?

Inequality, structural violence in its many pernicious forms, suffering, hunger, extreme poverty, violence against people who don’t conform to outdated notions of gender and sexuality, reparations, reconciliation, land reform, racial tension, the unfair burden that black women in every aspect of their existence in this country must bear — none of that is going to be resolved by “being nice”.

Good manners aren’t going to fix the world. However, if we all (and I really do mean all, not just the stereotype represented by Karen) just checked ourselves before we acted or spoke, it certainly wouldn’t make anything worse than it already is.

There’s a tendency, particularly among Karens, to show a pugilistic face to the world and, when confronted by their own behaviour or their habits, to react defensively and often in disproportionate outrage. Because when it comes to power, everything is always high stakes and high emotion.

The Karen Book of Rules tries to coax us back from that edge with humour. DM/MC

Maverick Citizen will, next week, publish an extract from the book.

The Karen Book of Rules is written by Karin Schimke and Karen Jeynes and is published by Tafelberg. Register for the launch of the book here.

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