Leftovers: ‘Karenism’ meets Dr. Seuss

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A ticked-off reader recently accused me of being sanctimonious in a June 24 column addressing the phenomenon of “Karenism.”

She also chided me for referring to preferred gender pronouns in yet another column and wrapped it up by saying I want people to be more like me or they’re not OK. 

I’m usually hypersensitive about both constructive and destructive criticism, but I thought about the reader’s intent and the chip on my own shoulder. It’s human nature to want people to like you, but I’m not backpedaling to appease her; when I said we can all learn how not to be from the “concepts of Karenism,” I firmly meant it.

Ironically enough, I strive to emulate a real-life Karen in my own day-to-day business. Since Karenism has nothing to do with the name itself, I’ll say it: One of my best friends is a Karen. However, as noted on her email signature, she truly is #neverthatkaren. 

Learning how not to be was a mantra in my house when struggling to make sense of bullies in the classroom, or mean girls in general. It’s simply obvious that if you don’t like the way someone is treating you, then don’t treat anyone else like that. Full stop.

For the record, I’m not pretending I made that up or it’s easy to do. We all know it’s called the Golden Rule and is a rephrased spoiler alert for an old, wildly popular book called the Bible. 

Another popular book on the topic is the Dr. Suess classic about the Star-Belly Sneetches. Written in 1961, “The Sneetches and Other Stories” is a collection of four tales about tolerance, acceptance, and diversity. With the civil rights movement underway, the book was a great resource for parents who reached for words to explain discrimination to their children, and perhaps to themselves.

How tragic that the Sneetches are just as relevant today as they were in August 1963, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous speech about his dream for our future. Fifty-seven years later it’s safe to say his future is here, but many of us are still acting like the star bellied kind of Sneetches who inherently fancied themselves as superior.

“The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best of the beaches.” (Courtesy Random House Children’s Books)

For those not familiar with the story (the Sneetches, not the Bible), or who need a refresher, the plot is simple. Two kinds of Sneetches lived on the beaches. One group had stars on their bellies, and the other didn’t. The Star-Belly Sneetches taught their children to put their snoots in the air and ignore the plain-bellied Sneetch children. They didn’t associate with them or invite them to participate in their games or parties. 

One day a guy named Sylvester McMonkey McBean came to town with a machine that could put stars on a Sneetch belly for $3. When all the plain bellies excitedly got stars, the original star bearers were appalled. But, McBean also had a machine that could take stars off of bellies for $20.

Pretty soon the collective Sneetch community spent all its money getting stars put on or taken off until no one knew who originally did or didn’t have a star. McBean leaves with a truck full of the Sneetches’ money and they’re left behind with the realization that they really are the same after all. Then, they throw great parties and the children hang out together as equals. 

That sure sounds like living the dream to me. 

I know books and stories, especially those intended for children, can’t take all the details of man’s inhumanity to man into account. I wondered if I were being too simplistic in falling back on the Sneetch parable when trying to make a point about Karenism. 

So I did some research and found “The Sneetches and Other Stories” are studied in various college-level courses around the country on race relations, white fragility, early childhood education, sociology, and even philosophy. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association listed the book as one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” It’s still on the list today. 

But it was this that sealed the deal: On March 2, 2016, President Barack Obama told a group of interns to always do the right thing, even if it wasn’t popular or easy. “Pretty much all the stuff you need to know is in Dr. Seuss,” he told them. “It’s like the Star-Belly Sneetches, you know? We’re all the same, so why would we treat somebody differently just because they don’t have a star on their belly?”

Sanctimonious? Nah. How can I be? I don’t even have a star and neither does my friend, Karen.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.