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We now live in a time when the line between being a nobody and a somebody can be drawn by an antibody. Humanity is split. And so is the screen of our double American crisis—one channel nervously tracking a global pandemic, the other crackling with eruptions of civil unrest. But this is not just a matter of unhappy coincidence. The two afflictions are related, and the relation is worth examining.

Covid-19 and white supremacy are mentioned in the same breath by many of us whose breathing has not yet been arrested by the coronavirus or a policeperson’s knee. By now we know that communities of color are more likely to suffer infections and deaths. We know that white Americans are likely to take the pandemic less seriously, defending a lousy sense of personal freedom against the imperatives of scientific judgment, communal concern, and international regulation. We also trade in the suspicion that the human bustle of public protests will reverse the putative successes of social distancing.

The acknowledgment of these mutual intensifications is meaningful but has little explanatory value. In order to understand the similarities and the possible causal connections between the coronavirus and white supremacy, we need to go beyond their respective symptoms. This is necessary in a place like the United States of America where healthcare is often geared toward feeling better rather than being well. And it is especially necessary in a time like ours, when the ferment of social unrest demands systemic change. To look at the symptoms, then, is to miss another opportunity to address the disease.

As far as the Covid-19 virus is concerned, it is philosophers that have characterized the problem in the most resonant way. In a recent interview and in subsequent written statements, Slavoj Žižek has referred to the virus as a “biological caricature… of life at its most stupid level of repetition and multiplication.” [1] Is name-calling a productive strategy against a speck of acid coated in a gauze of protein? Even though the most popular TV show of the quarantine conjures up a vérité parallel universe where big cats are subjected to baroque variations of verbal condescension, calling a virus “stupid” seems to carry little promise. But Žižek gets one aspect of the virus right: its lack of agency and intentionality.

A less judgmental version of the same argument has been made by Stephen T. Asma in the New York Times philosophy blog. Asma considers it all too human to try and find a purpose to the current pandemic. He surveys various attempts—ideological, religious, and political—to make sense of nature as a goal-oriented setup. These attempts fall under what Asma calls the “mythopoetic view of nature” which “sees the world primarily as a dramatic story of competing personal intentions, rather than a system of objective, impersonal laws.” [2] In other words, the only way for most of us to understand reality is by spinning fictions. But this is not because reality is so complex. On the contrary, it is the unbearable simplicity of scientific explanations that drives us towards narrative leaps and mythopoetics. Žižek’s characterization of the virus as “stupid” is effective precisely because it delivers the scientific view of a value-free universe by manipulating our weakness for ascribing anthropomorphic value to non-human non-agents.

The starkest example of this weakness, historically speaking, is our relationship with white supremacy. If you asked the average earthling today to think of a global affliction of contested provenance that affects us all, undermines our physical and political health, and is intensified by the imperatives of ideology and commerce, the immediate reference is likely to be the Covid-19 virus. Except white supremacy has fit that description for much longer and accounts for pain and destruction unmeasurable on the terms of the current pandemic. Covid-19 is nothing to sneeze at, but the deep burrows of social iniquity the pandemic has barreled along have been laid by centuries of racialized violence.

In terms of origin, a virus is a chemical glitch while white supremacy is a valuative one—neither one can be traced to a particular moment or intention. Morphologically they are also very similar, one being an undercooked biological entity and the other an underdeveloped cognitive construct. Ecologically they are both endemic presences, latent until activated in a human host. The problem is that most of these truths get obscured by mythopoetics. We string origin stories like laundry lines on which we dry the linens of intention and blame. We ascribe human traits to basic phenomena so we could hold them accountable in the imaginary courts of transcendent justice. We focus on manifestations rather than the things and systems they make momentarily intelligible.

The harshest and most mundane truth is that both Covid-19 and white supremacy are the type of things whose viability is entirely host dependent. This is clear when we redirect our gaze onto ourselves. The present pandemic silos humanity into three categories of viral risk: non-carriers, asymptomatic carriers and symptomatic carriers. These categories are disturbingly symmetrical to those along which we host and perpetuate white supremacy—the potentially vulnerable (non-carriers), the unwittingly complicit (asymptomatic carriers) and the overtly racist (symptomatic carriers).

In the context of race, the line between being a nobody and a somebody has been drawn by a drop of blood for thousands of years. That drop of blood, just like the virus and its antibodies, is a thoughtless non-agent. This is why instead of waging an imaginary war against the windmills of Covid-19 or white supremacy, we should try to broker a peace with ourselves. When Asma asserts that “the universe is more remarkable with us in it,” he returns some of the anthropocentric credit that his main argument has taken away. [3] But if it is true that we make the universe more remarkable we also have to acknowledge our responsibility for rendering its “stupid” aspects more remarkable and impactful than they could ever be on their own puny terms.

Our civilizational mythopoetic script favors technological progress, capitalist growth, and political conquest. It is this script that has enabled the global spread and impact of both the coronavirus and white supremacy. The danger zone in both cases is that of unwitting complicity: an asymptomatic carrier can turn symptomatic or infect a non-carrier at the drop of a dime. If medical personnel assume that you have the virus until proven otherwise, they are not making a moral judgment about you but are acting on the premise that virulence is a value-neutral systemic phenomenon which affects us all. If a Black person assumes that you are likely to have white supremacist tendencies, they are similarly not trying to diminish you but are expressing their hard-earned value-free awareness of systemic racism.

Our double infirmity is nowhere more pronounced than in the case of Karen. She is not a person but rather a rhetorical trope—the straight white female who weaponizes her vulnerability against the perceived “threat” of a Black male. Even in the absence of her chosen mortal enemy, Karen makes a sport out of asking to speak with the manager, calling the police, and detecting danger where there is none. Karen is acutely aware that impersonating a police officer is a felony but she also knows that having one’s fingers permanently contorted into the 9-1-1 position is not. Her hairstyle—a feathered asymmetrical bob with golden highlights—is forever arrested at the middle point between “The John” and “The Rachel.” To the extent that a white woman “fits the description,” she is a Karen.

There are two reasons why the Karen trope is necessary. The first has to do with the cultural connotations of the expression “fit the description.” For Black Americans these three words symbolize the burden of decades of police brutality and tendentious incarceration. In the unimaginative eye of law enforcement, and our justice system, every Black man “fits the description.” This is confirmed in stirring autobiographical detail by two of our best Black writers—Hilton Als in his recent essay “Homecoming” and Darnell Moore in his memoir No Ashes in the Fire. [4] The issue of profiling is especially poignant in these men’s stories because it is tackled against the backdrop of their Black mothers’ social invisibility. The very term “profiling” assumes the punitive application of a primitive optical typology—closer to the monolithic reductionism of nineteenth-century silhouette portraiture than to the phantasmic sophistication of Snapchat filters. Along this limited spectrum, a white female is usually visible as a body and a human, a Black man mostly as a body, and a Black woman rarely visible as either. As Als and Moore remind us, the two ghostly categories that restlessly haunt this picture are white men and Black LGBTQ people, the former as a higher regulatory presence and the latter as an incarnation of utter degrading absence.

The second reason why the Karen trope is necessary is because it highlights the power dynamics of racialized discourse. If a white woman “fits the description,” she can be identified as a Karen by anyone familiar with the contemporary trope and willing to use it. This is likely to hurt Karen’s feelings. But, since it was her feelings that got her in a mess of alarmism and name-calling in the first place, recourse to them threatens to amplify her Karenhood instead of helping divest her of it. The paradox cuts even deeper, because Karen’s feelings are constitutive of both her fragility and her power. Feeling a certain way in her case is generously underwritten by the muscle of white capitalist patriarchy.

This, of course, does not mean that Karen herself is exempted from some forms of righteous victimhood: it does not take a feminist to remind us what part women play, and pay dearly for, in our society. But the allotment of systemic neglect and violence is so extravagantly disproportionate across race lines that it renders Karen a unicorn of glib invincibility. In this sense, Karen is a useful reflexive trope which lays bare the vicious cycle of racialized presumption and the role of the state apparatus in perpetuating it. If a white woman happens to “fit the description,” the worst that could happen to her is to be identified as a Karen and to inspire a meme. If a Black man “fits the description,” the worst, and depressingly frequent, outcome is death.

It is no surprise that Karen is at the forefront of Covid-19 denial or that she frames compulsory lockdowns as an assault on her freedom. What could ever really go wrong for a person who has been conditioned to see her fragility as a superpower? At a time when thousands are dying of a highly contagious disease, and thousands more of police violence, Karen braves the protest lines carrying a “I Want A Haircut!” sign. And while it is true that a stereotype of generic white femininity threatens to flatten white women into a homogenous mass, Karen is immune to the real dehumanization that happens to Black people at the hands of healthcare protocols that prioritize white health and law enforcement routines that prioritize white safety.

To go back to the coronavirus analogy, we would all agree that the virus experiences no pain when Žižek calls it “stupid.” This is because the anthropocentric predicate of stupidity does not properly apply to a simple chemical compound and also because a chemical compound is out of reach for the intrusions of offense and pain. Žižek’s use of the human qualifier is helpful precisely because it reveals the futility of casting the virus mythopoetically as an intentional human-like enemy. This is the same kind of work the Karen trope does—it hurls a human qualifier at structural phenomena which go far beyond the intention and reach of any particular person. The trope is a rhetorical characterization of something that does not have a face, a hairstyle, or pain receptors. It serves to show the unfortunate but chronically common marriage between specific humanity—that of, say, Amy Cooper, whose Karen moment in Central Park earlier this year was met with public outrage—and the general socio-political context that enables its racist perversion.

The time has come to lift the mythopoetic veil. White fragility was the manifestation of white violence long before the Karen trope. White privilege was the perennial driver of social distancing long before the latter was formulated as the expression of health concerns. White greed was the cause of medical, economic and political disasters long before the current pandemic deepened the American racial divide. White supremacy was a delusion of grandeur long before it became the lifeblood of global patriarchy and frictionless capitalism.

These truths, and the rhetoric of whiteness, are not meant to hurt their addressees. The notion of whiteness operating here is not racially driven at all—it is simply the image of complicity in all-encompassing value-neutral structures that objectify, exploit, and kill Black people. It is a logical fallacy to claim that all lives matter in a world where Black lives demonstrably do not. It is a conceptual fallacy to attribute reverse racism to the millions whose life and survival depend on the eradication of racial barriers and the power formations that prop them up.

And since unwitting complicity got us to these gross and harmful misunderstandings, the only path forward is inward. This, however, does not mean a departure into the commercialized solipsism of therapy and self-care. Nor does it mean a return to the age-old heroic pursuit of self-knowledge. Instead, the model of self-knowledge our moment and its ailments call for is explicitly and generously sociable. More than thirty years ago, philosopher Donna Harraway urged for “the opening of non-isomorphic subjects, agents, and territories of stories unimaginable from the vantage point of the cyclopean, self-satiated eye of the master subject.” [5] This is a push against the centrifugal, individualistic pull of mythopoetics. As an alternative, Harraway advises us to explore the self as an “isomorphic” nexus, variously split in its knowledges and allegiances.

A person that tries to know themselves in this rich and contradictory way is much more likely to recognize and honor others’ humanity. Such a person will see social responsibility not as a top-down directive but as a lateral network of mutuality. They will be less inclined to adopt every new technological “wonder,” be it a vaccine or a contagion-tracking app, as a tool of self-differentiation and exceptionalism. They will be inherently skeptical of “going back to normal” because no historical time stamp ever registered a “normal” that served all people equitably. They will also be wary of the ways government uses the centralized imperatives of “public health” to divide and conquer its subjects ever anew.

Over the last couple of months, every time I run in my leafy neighborhood in Los Angeles, I think of my privilege as a white person. I owe this awareness to the fervent media coverage and activism occasioned by the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black twenty-five-year-old fellow runner. What I find especially unsettling, however, is that I am very likely continuing to enjoy other forms of white privilege unwittingly, just as I am very likely to someday become the unwitting carrier of the coronavirus.

These morbid potentialities, and their consequences for others, are my burden to bear and examine. They are also mine to fix. Beyond the delusionary mechanisms of difference, and my mythopoetic sense of self, lies the scientific truth that for the coronavirus and white supremacy I am a mere value-free vessel. All it takes to halt their sinister march is to contain the container.

Rossen Ventzislavov is an Associate Professor of philosophy at Woodbury University

Notes:

1. Slavoj Žižek. “Monitor and Punish? Yes, Please!”, The Philosophical Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 16, 2020.

2. Stephen T. Asma. “Does the Pandemic Have a Purpose?” The Stone, New York Times, April 16, 2020.

3. Ibid.

4. Hilton Als. “Homecoming,” The New Yorker, June 29, 2020; Darnell Moore. No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America (New York: Bold Type Books, 2019).

5. Donna Haraway. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn 1988. P. 586.

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