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How “Karen” became a symbol of racism

“Karen” is no longer content to speak to the manager. Now she’s calling the cops on her Black neighbors.

A Black Lives Matter demonstrator holds up a sign referencing “Karen” in Washington, DC, on June 6. “Karens” have become a focus of protests and pandemic social policing.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Karens are having a rough year. Over the past few months, the “Karen” meme that started out as mocking a fairly specific brand of white woman — an anti-vaxxer mom with an entitlement complex and “can I speak to the manager” hair — has undergone several rapid transitions. The name “Karen” has subsequently become virtually synonymous with more than just annoyed moms. Now, “Karen” is a stand-in for 2020’s fraught social politics.

When we first dissected the Karen meme in early February, it was seen as a giant joke. As it continued gaining popularity, however, it abruptly became a lot less funny and a lot more pointed. Throughout the spring, calling someone a “Karen” morphed from a jab at someone’s self-absorption into a shorthand for social policing around Covid-19. Then, with the rise of nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd, what it means to be “a Karen” took on even more sober implications. Swiftly and with perhaps utter finality, the Karen has become a searing symbol of white supremacy and a stand-in for 2020’s intense, racially charged debate over human rights.

Each iteration of the meme has taken the “Karen” figure in a considerably different direction from its original satirical form — a barbed but humorous caricature of entitled white women. While the meme’s meaning was still somewhat malleable during the first months of the pandemic, the national conversation around Black Lives Matter protests rapidly changed what many people meant by “Karen.” As the protests continue and political debate rages on, the Karen’s newly evolved association with white supremacy shows no sign of loosening, nor does the meme look like it will revert to its original, mostly innocuous form.

And now, we need to talk about Karen. Again.

The coronavirus Karen has always been with us, but never quite as visibly

The origin of the Karen meme is nebulous. As I previously reported, there’s a direct connection between the meme and a jokingly misogynistic subreddit formed in 2017 to poke fun at someone’s fictional, stereotypically bossy ex-wife named Karen. Others have claimed a similar 2005 Dane Cook joke as the meme’s origin, while some point to Karen from Mean Girls, Karen from Goodfellas, 2016’s “antisocial Karen” Nintendo meme, and Karen from a 2018 SNL skit as possible sources.

But all these pop culture Karens have one thing in common: They’re officious white women ruining the party for everyone else. The idea of naming those women is nothing new: Black culture in particular has a history of assigning basic nicknames to badly behaved white women. See: the trend in recent years of social media users assigning alliterative nicknames to white women wielding their privilege in real life, from Barbecue Becky and Golfcart Gail to Permit Patty and Talkback Tammy. In nearly all these instances, the women in question have been attempting to socially police their neighbors over minor inconveniences.

Before 2020, the trend of nicknaming white women who call the cops on their neighbors and the Karen meme had never really joined forces. The Karen meme’s original form hadn’t explicitly included social policing as a character trait; instead, it emphasized Karen’s pushy behavior, classism, and anti-science views, styling the ur-Karen with Kate Gosselin’s famous haircut. But Covid-19 inspired increased vigilance, which meant calling out people for how they were handling the virus suddenly became all the rage. And so, too, did the social distancing version of the Karen.

One couldn’t, after all, give individual nicknames to everyone who was now trying to pandemic-shame their neighbors. But because of the Karen’s association with an inflated sense of entitlement, the meme grew to include the white women who were complaining about Covid-19. Jada Calvin, who moderates the “Karens Gone Wild” Facebook group, told me her understanding was that the meme had always been a riff on the word “care” — that is, “These women are called Karen because they are caring about other people’s business.” And caring more than is appropriate, at that.

Covid-19’s spread in March has yielded fascinating discourse around what kind of public shaming is justified in the context of the novel coronavirus. For a while, the public was squarely divided about which of the now-dichotomous types of Karens was worse: the people refusing to quarantine or wear masks in public, or the people who officiously reported their neighbors for such bad behavior on sites like the neighborhood watch forum Nextdoor. The Karen meme was re-deployed in all directions.

In April, author Jennifer Weiner wrote in the New York Times of “the fear of being Coronavirus Karen,” while media headlines began to roll with the shorthand of Karen as a matter of course when describing people being publicly shamed for their bad behavior: “Coughing Karen outed online,” “8 Karens and Kens [the more rarely named male equivalent] who threw huge tantrums instead of putting on masks,” and so forth.

The onset of social policing around Covid-19 also exacerbated the class tensions often tied to white privilege. The notion of white middle-class entitlement over the working class was already inherent to the Karen meme, with its portrait of a fussy white woman wanting to “speak to the manager,” primarily to belittle the retail or service industry workers with whom she was interacting. The spread of the pandemic, however, exposed other types of glaring class inequality across the nation, regarding necessities like access to adequate health care and affordable housing, and financial sustainability. Karen’s anti-science attitude escalated, too: She now went from crusading against vaccines to crusading against masks.

In other words, many of the Karen-defining character traits that had previously been merely annoying abruptly became a matter of life and death.

The discourse around Covid Karens escalated the meme fairly quickly from a hand-waving, joke-making social commentary into a pointed and barbed insult. In January, when I spoke to a woman named Karen from Mississippi about the meme, she told me she’d been taking the meme in good humor, laughing along with everyone else at its skewering of white privilege. But as the virus spread, she told me recently in an email, the humor quickly wore off — in part because Karens themselves joined in on the meme with a dismaying but very Karen-ish lack of self-awareness.

“A few weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, I became so sick of social media and Karen memes (especially on Facebook) that I actually chose to deactivate my social media accounts and take a step back,” she told me, six months after we originally spoke. “At the beginning of lockdown, I saw so many of my Facebook friends posting Karen memes, and the people who were mainly posting were white women who tend to overreact. I think that’s what made me so disgusted. The very people the memes were supposed to target had started to share them without even realizing people like them were the reason that my name has been given a bad reputation.”

Karen told me she’d lost patience with the tenor of the jokes as they went more mainstream. “I’m aggravated that people have begun to treat my name with such animosity,” she said. Because she’s placed a moratorium on social media, however, she also told me she had no idea how the meme’s definition had evolved over the past couple of months.

“I’m assuming it has not been positive,” she said.

Oh, Karen, you have no idea.

The Central Park birder incident instantly made “Karen” a politically charged watchword for white supremacy in action

Karen might still just be a byword for bad pandemic behavior if not for a racist act caught on video on May 25, 2020.

That afternoon, Chris Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, was enjoying a nature walk in Central Park when he asked a fellow Manhattanite, insurance agent Amy Cooper (no relation), to leash her dog according to park requirements. The subsequent video Chris Cooper filmed of Amy Cooper, who is white, calling in a false and increasingly histrionic report to 911 that “there’s an African American man threatening my life,” immediately went viral and drew national media attention, because of the nightmare scenario it depicted for Black Americans.

Caught on camera in the 69-second video was all the entitlement and white privilege that the “Karen” meme laughingly criticized, suddenly on display in the extreme: a white woman whose racially motivated fear prompted her to consciously lie about and potentially endanger a Black man. Amy Cooper seemed to consciously escalate the panic in her voice to make the situation appear more urgent and dangerous, despite Chris Cooper making no apparent threats. The encounter lasted just a few minutes, but its impact lasted much longer. It was the most publicly blatant example yet of countless incidents where white people have racially profiled and called the cops on their Black neighbors for doing little more than existing.

Just hours later on the same day, halfway across the country, a similar nightmare scenario was also caught on video. It would end in the killing of George Floyd by police. That these two incidents occurred within hours of each other served to link the racism of women like Amy Cooper to the white supremacy that underlies police brutality. “These two storylines — the black man confronted by white fragility in Central Park and the black man confronted with police brutality in Minneapolis — will forever be in conversation with each other,” Michele L. Norris wrote for the Washington Post following both events.

Amy Cooper wasn’t the first white woman to weaponize her privilege against a Black man. Far from it. But the conjunction of the “Central Park birder incident” and Floyd’s killing viscerally and undeniably placed the entitlement of white women on a spectrum of racist violence with police brutality. And handily, there was already a meme moniker for just that sort of entitled white woman.

“The way that people are using Karen now still has a connotation of the original Kate Gosselin soccer mom,” linguist Kendra Calhoun, who specializes in the connection between language, race, and power, told me. “But the way that we’re seeing white women weaponizing white womanhood in a way that is so materially dangerous to Black people and other people of color and other marginalized people — I think that shifted the focus.”

All of this was inchoate in the original version of the Karen meme, Calhoun reminded me. “It’s a manifestation of the same sort of social practices, ideologies, or sense of entitlement, just on a larger scale,” she said. “The impulse that’s going to tell someone, ‘You don’t have the right to tell me to wear a mask,’ even though it was like a state-mandated thing — that’s the same sort of impulse [as], ‘You can’t tell me to put my dog on a leash in the area where it’s legally mandated to have my dog on the leash.’ It’s that same sense of, ‘I have the right to do whatever I want,’ regardless of any sort of social expectation.”

Calhoun pointed out that the simpler idea of the Karen as a demanding white mom is still going strong, but she’s been overshadowed by a more urgent reading. “That’s not to say that Karens don’t still storm into Target and demand to speak with the manager. [But] that’s less important when Karens are now calling the police and essentially trying to get Black people killed.”

With the rise of Black Lives Matter protests and racial tensions ignited nationwide, examples of such Karen-ing from all genders were abruptly everywhere: In Connecticut, a white man called 911 over a group of Latino and Black men peacefully launching a boat at his marina; in Michigan, a white couple pulled a handgun on a Black mother and daughter over a parking lot car tap; in St. Louis, another white couple pointed a pair of guns (an automatic rifle and a pistol) at peaceful protesters passing by their house.

The “gun couple” star in a parody movie poster about patriotic Karens, drawing on the meme’s racism-focused version.

“It’s time to call ‘Karens’ what they are — white supremacists,” argued an essay in Girls United. So swiftly did “Karen” morph into a shorthand for white people calling the cops on Black people that when San Francisco lawmaker Shamann Walton proposed a city ordinance that would outlaw “false racially biased” 911 calls, he dubbed it “the CAREN Act,” noting, “This is the CAREN we need.”

Meanwhile, in the Karens Gone Wild Facebook group, there are still more Covid Karen memes than Black Lives Matter or protest-related Karen memes. But most of the discussion is political, and Jada Calvin described the meme as “a great meme that explains how Karens use harassment against people of color as a way to justify their racism.”

The Facebook group was formed on May 15, mere weeks before the protests began — and though it’s only the latest in a horde of similar Facebook groups devoted to the Karen meme, it’s one of the most active, racking up more than 10,000 members in just over two months. “We use humor as a way to cope with these women and men,” Calvin said.

Calvin told me she joined the group and became a moderator explicitly to “be a part of something great which is exposing Karens and their ignorance.” She’s not alone. In fact, as George Takei recently noted, “exposing Karens” might be a “new national pastime.”

It’s hard to say what impact all this has had on actual people named Karen, but it’s caused one fictional Karen character to veer in a wild new direction. One YouTuber, Rachel, better known by her pseudonymous handle, CrinkleLuvinASMR, has a popular satirical “suburban moms” ASMR series on YouTube. Among the most popular of Rachel’s characters is one named “Karen.” But with the sharp politicization of the Karen meme, Rachel told me, she decided to drastically alter Karen’s character. In her most recent installments, Rachel’s Karen has let go of much of her “speak to the manager” anger and embarked on a new relationship — as a cat-owning lesbian.

“The idea was to take the parts of these stereotypical white women that are so hateful and weaponize it against them with humor — like, take the power away,” she told me. “But then with everything that happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I felt like I needed to be a little bit more proactive about pushing away from that line. [...] Anything that could possibly be misinterpreted as hate speech or racism or truly harmful homophobic stuff like that. Now I’m pushing away from it.”

Like Karen from Mississippi, Rachel told me she was wary the meme might be allowing people to point the finger at anyone but themselves. The Karen “is the social boogeyman,” she said. “Karen already had so much anger attached to it and resentment, because people need something to hate or blame. Instead of fixating on their own responsibility in perpetuating systemic racism, they want to demonize and stereotype this white woman.”

Calvin suggested a blunt solution for restoring the name Karen to its normal, nonpartisan state. When I asked her if it was possible for the name Karen to shed its reputation as a stand-in for entitlement, she said yes — but only “if those women who are called Karens would mind their own business.”

It’s tough to argue with that logic. Trying to push back on it might make you a ... I can’t think of the word. I’m sure it’ll come to me.