Opinion

It’s Not Okay to Make Jokes About the Targeting of an Ethnic Group

“Karen” was the most searched word on dictionary.com in July 2020, with two million searches in the month. It’s becoming common in the United States, but it’s less familiar abroad. So, I’ll spell it out: “Karen” is a pejorative term used to describe entitled white middle-aged women having meltdowns in public.

By Myra Dahgaypaw*

There’s an undercurrent of woman-hating in the term but I’m not one to engage in too much cancel culture. That said, Foreign Policy Deputy Editor James Palmer might want to rethink his recent “Karen” jokes as they relate to recent atrocities committed against the Karen people, an ethnic group in Burma, of which I happen to be a part.

I’m Karen. And I’m Burmese. I don’t say I’m from “Myanmar”, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s just a new name foisted on my home country that’s as arbitrary as it was to change the name of the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, to “WWE,” back in 2002. The reasons didn’t make sense to those loyal to the original. And in Burma’s case they were foisted upon the Burmese people by the military government in 1989. They’re not the boss of me. And fortunately, nor is Mr. Palmer.

In June, he started a thread of tweets about Burma’s Karen people, this way: “You might think the problem of women demanding to speak to the manager is bad in the United States,” he wrote. “But Myanmar has a Karen National Liberation Army.”

“There’s a real danger of them hooking up with the Philippines Moro Islamic Liberation Front, creating a unified front of MILF and Karen,” he tweeted, next. Then he wrote that somebody had told him he was “cancelled, now.” “BUT TOO LATE I AM UNCANCELLABLE MWAHHAHA.”

I beg to differ. At the very least, learn some impulse control with your sexist, racist tweets, Mr. Palmer. Seriously. You’re a white dude with an important job and we need you to pay attention to the issues in my home country. If they don’t fire you over what you wrote, then at least the outlet might consider getting a diversity consultant in.

I would be dead now if not for the protection of the Karen National Liberation Army. It’s not okay to make twitter jokes about the violent targeting of an ethnic group, 20 of whom have died this year in preventable airstrikes. Especially not when you’re the deputy editor of a global publication with an audience of more than 100,000 that has been going for more than 50 years. What do your publishers think? How is this in line with their values? Why haven’t you apologized and taken the tweets down?

I think you behaved like a dangerous, insensitive idiot. And I’m not alone. I agree with the adage that it’s never a good idea to pick a fight with a man who buys ink—or pixels—by the barrel. So, in this case let’s call it a teachable moment. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The Karen people are the second largest ethnic group in Burma and have their own language, culture, land, and history. Karen state is home to seven million Karen people. Like all states in Burma, Karen state is fraught with armed conflict, egregious human rights violations, and mass atrocities which lead to forced displacement. There is also large-scale land confiscation at the hands of the Burmese military. Fighting between the Burmese military and Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed organization working towards greater autonomy and self-determination of the Karen, often results in intense indiscriminate attacks against Karen civilians. When the Burma Army tries to violate the Karen and destroy their homes, it is the KNLA that stands up to them.

The Karen people are struggling for their land and most importantly for their existence as the indigenous people with their language and culture. They are indigenous, but the Burmese government and military makes business deals with foreign investors without consulting them. The Chinese-backed Shwe Kokko project, a sprawling industrial complex to include new apartments and casinos, has caused serious issues for the Karen who live in the development area. It has forced villagers out of their homes, and caused a spike in COVID-19 cases amongst nearby villagers, just as Burma has run fatally low on oxygen. Further, the military’s attacks on Karen villages have caused over 50,000 Karen people to be forcibly displaced since the beginning of 2020. From March to April, 2021 Karen state witnessed a total of 47 military bombs and 27 airstrikes that killed 20 civilians.

The situation in Karen state necessitates the world’s attention and aid. Not sexist, racist tweets. Misogyny is particularly out of place here when you think of the outsize effects of conflict that Karen women face. The Burmese military brutally rapes and sexually assaults Karen women, while pregnant Karen women struggle to survive in makeshift IDP camps. That’s not a sentence that naturally sets up a joke.

Karen organizations around the world are up in arms. But both Mr. Palmer and his employers have kept quiet. They must do better.
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*Myra Dahgaypaw is the Refugee Congress delegate for Virginia. She was born as an internally displaced person and grew up as a refugee at the Thailand/Burma border until she fled to the United States in 2000. She is the Director the U.S Campaign for Burma. The opinions expressed in this article is of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Karen News.

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