Chris Cooper, a birdwatcher who had an infamous viral interaction with a white female dog walker in Central Park that fueled the Bad Karen meme, stands in New York City last year. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

The Good Karens aren’t happy with us.

And I’m so sorry. But I’m not entirely sorry, even after getting emails from a bunch of folks sick of hearing the name maligned. Because the Bad Karen meme is good for society. Especially today, as it’s become an efficient way to learn about Whiteness. Let me explain.

By now, you’ve surely heard the name “Karen” used as a catchall term to describe an entitled, demanding White woman who polices other people’s behavior to create her own perfect microclimate, usually punching down on service workers who don’t cater to her needs or on people of color who are doing, well, anything.

At her most meddling, she uses the power she believes she’s entitled to as a hall monitor on steroids: Karen calls the police to report Black children swimming in the pool at the hotel, where their family was staying. She demands to speak to the manager after waiting 18 minutes for the shredded cheese she wants on her fajitas (cheese isn’t part of traditional fajitas).

Amy Cooper played the damsel in distress. That trope has a troubling history.

At her most dangerous, she weaponizes her White femininity to attack people of color while claiming victimhood: Karen calls the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, saying he’s menacing because he asked her to leash her unlawfully free-running dog. She tells men a 14-year-old Black boy hit on her when he didn’t, prompting them to murder a young Emmett Till.

The personality — a toxic and dangerous one — exists. But until the “Karen” persona was born, memefied and applied to high-profile incidents of racist behavior in public, there wasn’t a shorthand way to explain the virulent strain of whiteness to White people, who’d never bothered to understand Black wariness.

Now, White people see her.

It went mainstream in a huge way last year with that Central Park incident when Amy Cooper called 911 and told the birdwatcher she was going to use his race against him. And this is as close as America can come to seeing the deeper story behind Till’s murder.

Because for decades, much of America believed that Till was wolf-whistling at that clerk in Mississippi in 1955, and the nation was fighting for a Black boy’s right to be as cheeky as a White boy, and to survive.

Justice Department closes Emmett Till investigation without filing charges

But in 2017, it was revealed that Carolyn Bryant — the clerk — perhaps made it all up. She allegedly confessed this to author Timothy Tyson for his book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.” What we believed for 62 years was even more complex and devious than the nation imagined because Bryant may have used the (White) power of her (female) vulnerability to orchestrate the attack.

So because of some profane subreddit where a guy dumped on his ex named Karen, and because of a comedy sketch by Dane Cook describing Karen as the “friend nobody likes,” and because of the weird magic of the Internet, Karen is now a universally acknowledged term for a very specific and tragically common kind of behavior.

Karen was in America’s top 10 baby names throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s, according to the Social Security Administration. (It could have just as easily been Lisa or Linda or Susan).

And that sucks for all the Good Karens out there.

The funeral for Emmett Till unfolds every day in the District of Columbia

Their loved ones wrote in this week, after I described the kind of demanding and entitled customer who helped drive service workers from the industry as the “Karens who didn’t like the cook on their meat.”


“My wife is named Karen, and is a loving, caring and kind woman, like many of the Karens I’ve had the privilege of knowing,” wrote Thomas Prelovsky, a delightful, retired schoolteacher from Laurel. “I consider journalists’ use of Karen as shorthand to be lazy and offensive to the real Karens. I have read other colleagues of yours at The Post who have also used it and I wish your editors would put a stop to it.”


“How ironic that in a beautifully written article about people abusing volunteer referees and service workers, you would abuse women who happened to be given the name “Karen” at birth by using the name as a proxy for women who are self-centered and abusive to others,” said Anita Heygster, from Pasadena, Md.

Point taken.

“My daughter’s name is Karyn and she is a sweet, kind and gentle person,” write Joan McKenzie. “Please don’t follow popular culture and demonize a name that doesn’t deserve such treatment.”

These readers were kind and respectful in their notes, and I know a thing or two about suffering because of a name. (Petula isn’t easy. After the people who remember Petunia Pig or Petula Clark aged out, I now live with the ubiquitous auto-correct to “Petulant.”)

When I think of a few Karens I know, the first thing that comes into my head is “brilliant and on point” (Karen Tumulty), “brave and pioneering” (Karen Mulhauser), “awesome” (Karen Attiah), and then I remember, “Oh yeah, her name is Karen.”

When I think of “Karen” behavior, I hear Amy Cooper holding her dog and yelling, hockey moms screaming at my boy’s teammate to “Go back to China!” and Jennifer Schulte on her phone reporting the Black men barbecuing at a park.

I wish there were a better shorthand that didn’t include real women. Whitina? Jerkelia? Insufferabella?

But after taking the time to think about what it means that we, as a society, have found a way to identify and call out that specific behavior in one word, I can’t be truly sorry.

It’s not fair, but it’s progress.