Recently, “Karen” has come to be known as an epithet for an intrusive white woman – the self-appointed hall monitor unleashed upon society. So sure of her standing that she doesn’t hesitate calling authorities – demanding to speak to a manager or calling the police – over seemingly insignificant and often imaginary transgressions.
In recent years
White middle-class women have become an internet phenomenon, with one particular type being dubbed “Karen.” The racism displayed by these white women has been documented in several high-profile incidents over the last year.
Karens often make demands that go above and beyond what is expected. They demand to speak to the manager, are anti-vaxxers, and engage in racist microaggressions like asking black people to touch their hair. Furthermore, these Karens tend to have an entitlement complex.
These videos of privileged white women have become widely shared on social media and often garner millions of views online. But some believe these viral videos only depict a subset of the much more complex systemic racism that permeates society.
Terence Fitzgerald, professor of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, notes that such Karen-esque incidents often stem from racial profiling, sexism and cultural “redlining,” where white people attempt to maintain exclusive access to public spaces. These acts often reflect an attitude that people of color don’t belong in certain areas or that they should police those spaces instead.
He states that these incidents are often motivated by resentment over job losses and economic hardships, as well as stress from lockdowns, furloughs and the return of Black Lives Matter protests. He adds that these feelings of injustice may be compounded when Karen-esque incidents occur more frequently in white neighborhoods than black ones due to a lack of understanding on how best to address racial tensions.
Karens have even been linked to police violence. For instance, one woman filmed in Central Park calling 911 on bird-watcher Christian Cooper falsely reported an African-American man as threatening her life.
These videos have made Karens an increasingly contentious topic, with many now labeling her actions as racist. Yet there are concerns about the long-term effect these video clips could have on women who could potentially face harassment and doxxing even if they didn’t commit any crimes themselves.
Despite these worries, Karens videos remain popular on social media platforms and have often been used to address gender, privilege and racism issues.
In the past
Recently, women have experienced a wave of derogatory labels applied exclusively to them. If one is considered too loud, ambitious or attractive, an insult often takes the form of an offensive sexist name. Not long ago, young feminists challenged this linguistic sexism but now it appears to be returning with a vengeance.
One such name is “Karen,” a pejorative term that derogatorily describes an adult white woman who uses her privilege and relative vulnerability to seek revenge against someone Black. This archetype dates back to 18th century America and the abolitionist movements, according to On Account of Color and Sex website.
But in today’s digital world, Karen has become a way for white women to criticize those they perceive as using their privilege and prejudice for personal gain. Thus, it has become an elitist and racist tool with the potential to harm others.
Recent examples of the Karen trend include concerns over coronavirus spreading and racial injustice, both hot topics for 2020. People are expressing their emotions through social media posts and video clips.
For example, Stacy Talbert recorded herself on the brink of tears while waiting for her food at McDonald’s, fearing someone might have tampered with it due to her status as a police officer. That video went viral and sparked widespread derision.
Social media has become a platform where people could express their anger without fear of consequences. It can be an unsettling, chilling and mesmerizing experience that garners millions of views online; however, it ignores the reality that people of color face racism daily.
Following a protest movement in Portland, Oregon, similar situations developed. Videos of women chanting “I don’t want to be treated like a pig by white people” have been shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Covid-19 was an example of this, but they may also be a response to social policing in general and reflect the fact that women still take more risks than men even in today’s increasingly male-dominated society.
In the present
The Karen meme is a term that has gained notoriety due to incidents of white women harassing, taunting and policing Black people. It began in late 2010s and gained momentum through online communities such as r/F—YouKaren (created by an angry ex-wife).
Though these incidents can be seen as microaggression, some activists contend they also represent an attack against racial equality and classism. They note how Karens in these videos often must contend with multiple issues at once – mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and economic hardship.
People often respond to these circumstances with a mixture of anger and fear. They might question if they have done something wrong or feel they are the victim of discrimination; thus, many opt to film and share footage with their friends. This increased level of scrutiny has contributed to the recent growth in number of Karens around the world.
Karens have been linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and other recent protests. These movements take the “Karen” concept to new heights, addressing racial issues and prejudices that would not otherwise be discussed within political discourse.
Karen has become part of a trend in recent years to give basic white names to people who are considered misbehaving, regardless of whether they fit the stereotypes of middle American white Protestant privilege. Examples include Barbecue Becky, Golfcart Gail, Permit Patty and Talkback Tammy.
These types of incidents continue to take place, exposing the invisible barriers some people build in their neighborhoods and workplaces to keep out those who look different than them. It is a way of upholding white socio-economic power structures while denying anyone of color access to it.
Twitter has seen the term become a hot topic, with people discussing incidents of white women demanding to enter stores without wearing masks and calling the police on Black people who ask for directions or require their dogs to be leashed in public. Some have even accused these people of being racist.
In the future
Over the past two years, Karens have become increasingly common on social media: white women who bulldoze their way into parks grilling over an open fire or police others for what appear to be minor and often imaginary offenses. Videos such as Amy Cooper threatening to kill a Black man in Central Park became iconic Karen-of-the month; Lisa McCormick coughing on someone who called her out for not wearing a mask was another viral hit, among many more examples.
The rise of sexist names has a real effect on people of color and their communities. Names aren’t just personal preference or what someone says they’ll call their child — they are also cultural markers which can affect someone’s chances for employment, college acceptance or marriage prospects.
Racial justice and pandemic policy intersect on this issue, making the Karen moniker ironic in that it echoes the stereotyping that people who discuss the coronavirus attempt to avoid in the first place.
Karen’s sexism and prejudice has a deeper-seated cause. Scholar Jessica Williams describes Karen as an example of white woman “enlisting others to carry out her violence and injustice against others”, similar to Carolyn Bryant – the adult white woman who threatened to torture 14-year-old Emmett Till – and Mayella Ewell – the adult white woman who testified under oath that her friend had sexualized her.
These incidents are not isolated occurrences; rather, they’re part of a wider pattern of white women using their power to police, intimidate and control others for sexual pleasure. By doing so, they expose Black people to racism they might otherwise have had to endure on their own.
Unfortunately, this problem often goes ignored or not addressed at all. And without action taken, the situation could get much worse.