The Karen Meme has become a global phenomenon over the last couple of years, often used to mock white women who act entitled in public.
Recent viral videos showing Karens trying to reserve parking spots and harassing people of color on the street have amassed millions of views, yet they also expose a longstanding and persistent issue in American society that remains largely invisible to most citizens.
What is the Karen Meme?
The Karen Meme is a subversive expression used to label white women with an arrogant sense of entitlement. Initially referring to an anti-vaxxer woman with the iconic “can I speak to the manager?” haircut, it has since evolved into an insidious label for those who engage in online racialized aggression.
In 2020, Karens rose to national prominence when videos of White women engaging in various aggressive behaviors spread across the internet. From trying to reserve parking spaces for Black men to calling police on minor infractions, Karens gained national attention amid a coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial justice issues.
Social media users quickly turned Karens’ videos into memes that shamed them, drawing comparisons with Emmett Till, the Black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman in 1955. These satirical videos also highlighted other videotaped incidents involving Black people that occurred before 1955.
Karens are white women known for their arrogant sense of self-importance and sexism. Typically, they wear asymmetrical short hair styles with tattooed phrases like “can I speak to the manager?” on them and exude an air of entitled arrogance.
It is uncertain where the term ‘Karen’ originated, but many believe it originated with Dane Cook’s 2005 comedy routine entitled “Can I Speak to the Manager?” Some point towards a humorously misogynistic subreddit created in 2017 and an antisocial Karen Nintendo meme from 2016.
According to a senior editor at Know Your Meme, the term ‘Karen’ is an insulting epithet for middle-aged white women. It draws inspiration from stereotypes such as Ditzy Karen from Mean Girls or meddling Karen from Goodfellas.
One of the most popular ‘Karen’ references on Reddit, a forum where users discuss controversial topics, is Fuck_You_Karen. Started two years ago as a parody by 17-year-old karmacop97 from Irvine, California, this thread has grown into one of its own popular subreddits.
Karmacop97 initially created Fuck_You_Karen as a parody, but it has quickly become an obsession for the site’s community. Thousands have subscribed to its subreddit.
Sun noted that even though these people have no physical connection to one another, they all share an overwhelming anxiety over being labeled a ‘Karen’. This uncertainty has caused them to consider how it might influence their lives in the future.
Why Are We Labeling White Women?
For centuries, white women in the U.S. have been able to thrive and prosper due to their privilege of access to compassion and fairness that comes with being of color. This privilege has enabled them to live up to their responsibilities as citizens without being held accountable for their actions or failing to live up to expectations set out for them by society.
There are many reasons for why this occurs. Part of it stems from racism that privileges and rewards white people based on their racial membership while penalizing those who do not fit into this group.
White people have an advantage in terms of access to compassion and fairness, as well as the ability to conceal their own prejudices (Synder-Yuly & Owens-Patton). This gives them the power to justify behaviors which defame others or violate their dignity and rights for personal gain.
One of the most prevalent ways white people conceal their prejudices is by claiming to be victims. This tactic often works in organizations where white people are rewarded for victimizing and abusing Black people, whose agency is often denied.
This process, known as the white gaze, is a form of power which facilitates and reinforces white privilege in the workplace. Its main mechanisms are practices which demonstrate entitlement, exploitation, and endangerment towards Black women at work.
The white gaze is an ever-present factor in the workplaces of Black women, whether overtly (e.g., telling a Black woman she’s angry) or covertly (e.g., Black women feeling pressured to exaggerate jollity in anticipation of tone-policing).
In many cases, the white gaze is part of a larger racist machine that privileges and rewards white people while penalizing those who do not fit in with this group. It has its roots in centuries of slavery, colonialism, and the erasure of Black voices and values. Furthermore, Eurocentric aesthetic norms value and promote certain bodies as ideal and thus worthy of being treated as such at work.
Why Are We Labeling Black Women?
Labeling black women based on their skin tone can be an incredibly dehumanizing and damaging act. It has the potential to have many detrimental outcomes for these women, such as poor mental health conditions, depression and suicide rates.
This stereotype can be particularly detrimental in the workplace. A recent study revealed that employees are more likely to attribute black female employees’ anger to internal characteristics rather than external causes, which negatively impacted their performance ratings and leadership evaluations.
White people’s perception of black women can often lead to harassment or physical assault against them, especially when these women hold positions of power such as executives, managers or supervisors.
Additionally, this stereotype can cause Black women to avoid speaking up and airing their opinions. It could potentially erode the relationships they have with their employers as well.
The Sapphire caricature of angry Black women has been a ubiquitous trope in popular culture and society for decades, appearing in movies, television shows and books alike.
Although this sex stereotype has declined in popularity over time, it still plays an integral role in society’s perception of Black women. Whether used for media coverage or political advocacy, Sapphires often serve as a profile symbolizing those black women who challenge status quos and challenge racism.
Examples include Sojourner Truth, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Josephine Baker, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill, Alice Walker and Rita Dove – all seen and treated as sapphires.
Furthermore, many of the most significant abolitionists, anti-lynching activists and civil rights champions have been labeled Sapphires.
This sex stereotype has been used to oppress and enslave black women, leading to racial discrimination in both workplaces and society at large.
Maintaining a positive and supportive workplace environment is essential to combatting the prevalence of sex stereotyping in organizations. One effective way to do this is by taking time to educate yourself about black female coworkers’ struggles and providing them with a secure space to express their opinions and fears.
Why Are We Labeling Women?
Society often stereotypes women into roles based on certain feminine characteristics. These could include empathy and emotion, balance in life, or the capacity for working through conflict. Men on the other hand tend to be seen as more assertive and results-oriented.
Gender stereotyping can lead to discrimination and bias, both unconscious and conscious, which in turn limits opportunities for women in the workforce. It may also contribute to gender discrepancies in politics and legal matters. Furthermore, gender stereotyping has a detrimental effect on women’s wellbeing and safety at work.
Despite our best efforts to eliminate gender-based stereotypes, we still have a long way to go. Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions (only 24 out of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women), and gender diversity continues to be an issue within the workplace.
These disparities can be especially troubling when it comes to holding people accountable and driving results. It’s essential to remember that women are just as capable of these tasks as men, so let us stop judging them based on stereotypes.
In conversations between men and women, it can be delegitimizing for a woman’s arguments when she is labeled emotional by their conversation partner. This dynamic is especially harmful in the workplace where it is common practice to use the “emotional” label in conversations with male co-workers.
Delegitimizing behavior often goes undetected, but there are ways to detect it. The first step is understanding that emotions are often ambiguous, fleeting and complex in everyday interactions.
Emotions can be difficult to assess, leading to inaccurate judgments about someone’s rationality. Indeed, recent studies show that when women are instructed to “calm down” during a disagreement, their arguments are judged less legitimately than when they do not receive this instruction.
Furthermore, the “emotional” label can be used to delegitimize other women involved in an argument – leading to increased violence when gaslighting occurs. This type of labeling can be especially damaging for those who have already suffered trauma and create obstacles to advancement at work.