May 15, 2020
It is the eye-rolling rejoinder that makes Karens everywhere—but especially on social media—grind their teeth: “Okay, KAREN.”
Indeed, while it may be familiar and frequently used first name, on the Internet, “Karen” has come to stand for so much more, according to a report by The Guardian.
However, The Guardian notes, “As the meme has become more prominent in online discourse, its meaning has become confused, and criticism has been voiced that it is sexist—catching real-life Karens in the crosshairs.”
“I spend a lot of time on Twitter, so I find it rather annoying,” Karen Geier, a writer and podcaster from Toronto told the news outlet. “Anything you say, people can be like, ‘Okay, well, whatever, KAREN’ —but that’s not even how the meme is supposed to be used. It’s supposed to be about people who want to speak to the manager.”
Know Your Meme, a Wiki-style site that defines Internet culture, added “Karen” last year as an extension of the “‘Can I speak to the manager’ haircut” meme, born of Black Twitter back in 2014. “Whenever you want to signal that that character’s a Karen, you’ll just toss that haircut on,” says the editor-in-chief, Don Caldwell.
But more likely, The Guardian says, the name was chosen for its association with whiteness. “Growing up as a kid in the 1990s, I remember people—particularly, other black—being like, ‘You don’t look like a Karen,’” recalls Karen Attiah, an editor at The Washington Post. “It was an unspoken thing, but Karen was a white, older lady’s name.”
When Attiah was born in 1986, she told The Guardian, “[the use of the name] Karen” was already in decline, having peaked in the United States in 1965. In 2018 there were just 468 baby Karens born. “We’re kind of a rare breed,” she says.
Her mother, who had immigrated from Nigeria, chose the name so that Attiah could “easily move around in a white-dominated world”. “It has afforded me, I think, a certain privilege,” says Attiah.
It is that privilege that the meme sets out to skewer. In 2018, it was among a handful of female names to become attached to a spate of viral videos showing white women racially targeting people of color. The antagonist of one such clip, of a woman calling the police over a group of African American men having a barbecue in a park in Oakland, California, came to be known as BBQ Becky (another name applied to white women online).
The meme is therefore rooted in black American Internet culture, says Attiah—an attempt to find humor in real-world racism and oppression. To call someone a Karen is to target a particular behavior: “It’s a very specific definition and, if you’re not acting that way, it shouldn’t bother you,” says Attiah, implying that “to try to hijack the meaning of the meme is “a pretty Karen thing to do.”
The meme has new resonance in the time of coronavirus, increasingly being applied to those who are protesting against social distancing measures or treating the pandemic as permission to unfairly police others.
Karen Sandler, an attorney and software freedom advocate, tells the Guardian that, at first she was “a little sad” to see her name being applied so negatively – “but it’s just so funny, and also clearly, a little bit true”.
It has in some ways been a wake-up call, says Sandler. “I never want to be ‘a Karen’ in the way the meme suggests and, since it’s my name, I think about this often. It has helped me really appreciate the advantages that I have in life, and emboldened me to speak out when I see people being ignored or disadvantaged.”
The Karen character serves as a reminder to support people who are being ignored or overlooked, says Sandler, and to use her Karen powers for good. She included it in a recent talk she gave as an example of how everyone—not just Karens—can learn to be more mindful of others.
“The only way we’ll help our societies to become fully equal is if we each are willing to speak out for other people who have more to lose by speaking up. And Karens are known for their voices!”
Research contact: @GuardianUS