My name is Karen. I would like to register a complaint.
My name has been everywhere on the Internet in recent weeks, with #Karen trending on Twitter, flooding TikTok and becoming the subject of social media memes. #AndThenKarenSnapped also became a viral trend, describing white women losing their tempers. In the past several years, “Karen” has come to represent a certain archetype of middle-aged white female privilege — or the new n-word, depending on whom you ask. Yup, “Karen” is the new black.
A young Karen likely would have been the class snitch, tattling on her classmates to the teacher to get them in trouble. Middle-aged Karen is the one asking to see your manager. And a Karen at the peak of her powers will call the police on someone for a mild inconvenience.
The most recent Karen fires came from across the Atlantic, fanned by white British women claiming that “Karen” is — wait for it — an oppressive slur. “Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?” tweeted Julie Bindel, a British feminist writer, whose credentials in oppression include being known for espousing anti-trans rhetoric. Nonetheless, the conversation around Bindel’s tweet included white women who did feel Karen memes were offensive. Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian that the Karen memes were sexist. Another viral tweet went so far as to call “Karen” the equivalent of the n-word.
As a millennial black Karen, and a child of immigrants, I find the brouhaha hilarious and twisted. “Karen” is not and will never be an oppressive slur. Anyone who disagrees can take it up with my manag … — I mean, with history.
In her piece for the Guardian, Freeman’s basis for labeling the Karen meme sexist was that white men are using the word to make fun of white women. But Freeman seems to believe "Karen” originated with white men, when these notions about the name and white privilege have been circulating in the black community for a long time.
As a kid in South Dallas in the ’90s, I remember one time when I introduced myself to other black kids at the mall. One of them raised an eyebrow and looked puzzled when I told him my name. “You don’t look like a Karen,” he said. “That’s a white lady’s name.” Karen was a popular name for baby girls in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, many Karens are, in fact, of the boomer generation. My mother, who grew up in Nigeria, named me Karen precisely because she wanted me to blend into white American society and face fewer problems in life than I would have with a foreign or a “black-sounding” name. Being a Karen has probably given me some advantages.
Freeman goes on to lament that there are “memes about Chad and Zach,” but those “have never had the popularity of ones about Becky, Susan or Tammy, let alone Karen.”
It’s not as though men’s names haven’t been used to depict problematic behavior. There’s “Uncle Tom,” used to describe a black man who is seen to be excessively subservient to white people. A more recent example is “Stan,” which in recent years has come to mean a person who is an admirer of a public figure. But the origins come from Eminem’s song “Stan,” in which a male fan named Stan is so utterly obsessed with Eminem that he kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend. There isn’t a specific name that is used for problematic young white male behavior; the dismissive “OK, bro” is what we’ve got for now.
Freeman largely ignores race in her piece, save for one throwaway line: “People of color should describe their experiences of racism in whatever language works for them.”
Well, many of us decided that Karen, or, say, Becky, works for us. Black American expression, including hip-hop, rap and remix culture, drives global social media culture and shapes language. Take Becky, for example: It was rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 song “Baby Got Back,” in which a white girl, disgusted by the shape of a black woman’s body, talks behind the black woman’s back to her friend Becky. Over the years, and partially thanks to Beyoncé, “Becky” was popularized in the black community to refer to a white girl, especially one with backstabbing tendencies.
But this is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Cultures from around the world use common names to describe archetypal behaviors. Is “Karen” gendered? Yes, it’s a girl’s name. But sexist? Nah.
In America, white women are often believed and protected at all costs, even at the expense of black lives. In 1955, it was a white woman who falsely accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her in Mississippi, which led to him being brutally beaten and killed. Fast-forward to recent years and we still learn about black people being arrested or assaulted because a white woman called the police unnecessarily. Becky and Karen memes and jokes should be understood in this context, part of a long tradition to use humor to try to cope with the realities of white privilege and anti-blackness.
Dehumanizing slurs don’t gain their cruel power overnight. They are part and parcel of generations of violence, erasure and discrimination. Calling the Karen meme the new n-word or asserting that it is a sexist slur only trivializes actual violence and discrimination that destroy lives and communities.
And to invent oppression when none is happening to you? Well, as a Karen, I just have to say — that is peak Karen behavior.
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