Karens: A Cautionary Tale of How to Be Less of a Horrifying White Woman in America
My husband called my name. He usually calls me “Honey” or “Baby” or “Hey, You,” but this time, he used my given name. I felt an unexpected wave of anger wash over me, and I stomped into the living room to confront him. “Don’t call me Karen!”
“But, that’s…your name.”
“I don’t care. Don’t ever do that again.”
Wikipedia defines Karen as “…a pejorative term used in the United States and other English-speaking countries for a woman perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is appropriate or necessary. A common stereotype is that of a white woman who uses her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others.”
If you look up “Fuck You Karen” on Reddit, or #Karen on Instagram, or Google “Karen,” you will find over a million entries, posts, and search threads.
What’s in a name? That which we call a “Karen” has become increasingly synonymous with the aggressive weaponization of white, middle-aged, female privilege. Karens have become the icon for the anti-vaxer, anti-mask, homophobic, racist, unapologetically abusive white woman, frequently caught on video, doing her Karen thing. It’s gotten to where I cringe whenever I have to sign or say my own name. My seven-year-old grandson even told me last weekend, “ Bubbie, I feel sorry for you that your name is Karen.”
I have a friend who had a successful novel published many years ago called Eleven Karens, about a series of women with whom the narrator was romantically involved. It is very funny. My friend was working with a pod cast producer who wanted to turn it into an eleven episode series, and then Karen happened. They had to change the name to Eleven Susans. Not as cool a title in my opinion but one would expect a pod cast about eleven Karens in 2020 to be about something else entirely.
At first, as my grown kids were sending me memes about Karens, I laughed and was a little flattered that the name was getting any traffic at all. It is not a common name anymore. From 1957 to 1966, Karen was one of the top five most popular baby names, and then it fell out of favor. Few people under the age of fifty are named Karen.
These first memes were mostly poking fun at menopausal white women with stupid haircuts demanding to “speak to the manager.” But as time went on the memes got meaner. And then the videos, social media posts, and news stories started to appear in rapid succession—all labeling these mostly white female perpetrators of racist ranting and threats as “Karens.” Soon I grew embarrassed and resentful that my name was being associated with these things. An acquaintance of mine, also named Karen, complained, “This Karen thing is sexist and ageist. As if middle-aged women aren’t invisible enough, now we are being made to feel as if we are horrible monsters if we try to assert ourselves.” She might have had a point about the sexism/ageism. It has been suggested that the Karen thing was started by an “incel” (a virtual group of “voluntary celibate” misogynists) complaining about an ex-wife. Feminists have asked why women are singled out and the more dangerous, more likely to be armed middle-aged white men don’t have a moniker. Where are the “Dicks” and “Billys?” But that is a conversation for a different blog. My acquaintance was wrong about the idea that some of these women were just “asserting themselves.” The Karens caught in the now-famous videos are horrible monsters.
Other Karens seem to be more about power and control. I admit I have been known to complain to the manager, maybe even more than most people. Customer service being what it is at times, sometimes it must be done, particularly when it comes to cellular providers, utilities, and contractors. But now, imagine my humiliation when I ask for the manager and am, in turn, asked my name. Some people don’t even try to hide the smirk.
Okay, I am a female, white boomer named Karen. But I would never behave like those monster Karens, something I recently declared in an email to my grown kids: “I am not homophobic or racist, or a science-denying, 911-dialing horror-of-a-human-being!” True enough agreed my two sons and daughter-in-law, who had in good humor been sending me the videos, memes, and Reddit links on Karens. Their validation was comforting, but temporary.
Those three are part of my Young People Posse, or YPP. They have helped me over the years to strive towards more “woke-ness.” When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s young people had a saying, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” because of their outdated ideas and beliefs. I was and am determined to be different, to stay in tune with important social issues and ready to learn new things. One of my adult sons is gay, and the other and his wife are social workers. They have deepened my awareness of issues like the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and addiction. They are the first people I call when I want to get a handle on new developments in everything from popular culture to politics.
The YPP have called me out when I get it wrong. When I looked at my son’s messy apartment and said, “I thought gay men were tidy,” he leveled his gaze at me and said, “That’s a stereotype worthy of a bigot.” When I mentioned I didn’t think that Beyoncé was all that good of a role model for young women, my daughter-in-law, who grew up with Destiny’s Child, immediately corrected me. She let me know in no uncertain terms what Beyoncé’s songs, self-confidence, and hard work mean to women in terms of both art and female empowerment. She made me watch the “Formation” video. I became an immediate convert. My other son once patiently explained to me the injustice and hopelessness of poor folk who get caught in the spiral of the criminal parole system. Although I’m a divorce lawyer and not a criminal law attorney, I should have already known this! (My family law clients didn’t have to worry about making it to parole meetings with no car while trying to keep a job, only to be sent back to jail if they didn’t make it.) They even chide me for being a “Karen” when I scold mask-less people who get too close while we are out walking. Of course, I still do it anyway.
This “education of Mom” was part of the Posse’s response to when I recently and indignantly said, “I do not behave as if I am entitled!” The three of them turned on me. “How could you possibly behave any other way?” they chorused. They insisted that I have benefited from systemic racism my whole life and pressed that I was raised to be entitled as a white woman. This made me so uncomfortable that it was hard to not get immediately even more defensive.
One of my friends, I’ll call him “Bob,” is a black man who told me about the times he’s walked down the street and white women have crossed to the other side or clutched their purses. He is bewildered and insulted by their apparent fear of him. And he is terrified of their fear as well. There is a long history of white women in America weaponizing their alleged fear.
That’s what Amy Cooper (known as the “Central Park Karen”) did in May this year when a black man asked her to put her dog on a leash in a part of the park where this was mandatory. She said, “I am going to call the police and tell them that an African American man is threatening my life,” and then she did just that. This was an act of racial violence. This white woman was willing to call on a force which could have escalated a situation involving a black man and gotten him killed. I was so angry when I saw this, and also moved by the courage of the man who stood his ground and videoed her behavior.
There are other infamous Karens, including Lisa Alexander or “San Francisco Karen” who confronted a Black man stenciling BLACK LIVES MATTER on a wall on his own property and accused him of defacing private property. Or the “Queen of Karens,” a woman in Florida who was caught on video launching a racist attack against a team of gardeners.
When Bob told me about his encounters with the purse-clutching white women, I asked myself if I had ever done something like that. I can’t remember clutching my purse, but if I am alone, and in the presence of a strange man of any color on the street or in an elevator or parking garage, I feel on guard: not exactly fearful, but hyper-aware. Would I be more hyper-aware if the man were black instead of white? I don’t know. But my own unconscious biases are something I am going to pay more attention to from now on. I am going to attend to my feelings in these situations, and tune in to my own inner dialogue.
Let’s go back for a moment to the worst of the Karens, the Amy Coopers and Lisa Alexanders. What is really happening with these incidents? Because of cell phone cameras, more despicable behavior is being caught on video and disseminated via social media. This behavior seems to be widespread given the wealth of on-line evidence. What is the effect of labeling the offenders “Karen” and calling them out on social media and in the news?
In the Time Magazine July 20, 2020 issue, Apryl Williams, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, opined that the Karen memes can have different purposes for different audiences. For black people, they are a way to archive evidence of injustices and the attempts to control their bodies and actions. For white people, they can be a way to recognize behaviors that should be repudiated. The Karen memes help hold white people accountable for their racism.
Until that conversation with the Posse, I am ashamed to admit that I had never fully considered my own “white privilege.” I acknowledged that I was privileged in many ways, but I had thought of it more as, well, generic privilege. I am privileged to have been born in a time and place where women have more opportunities. I was able to access the privilege of a higher education. I am an American citizen and a lawyer. I have some power, and I have thrown my weight around to get what I thought was right. Before I retired, I was known as an aggressive divorce attorney. I was actually proud when the opposing counsel or their client called me a “bitch attorney.” It meant I was doing my job.
Both in and out of court, I have complained, demanded, insisted, and argued. “Oh my God. I am a Karen,” I would eventually text the YPP. I have not aimed my righteous indignation at people of color, so there is a qualitative difference between me and the notorious Karens of our time, but energetically there is a similarity. Even though I never thought of these actions as being a product of “White Privilege,” the truth is, because of the color of my skin and where I live, I got away with a lot of shit.
How can I be less of a horrifying white woman in America? How can I use “Karen” energy in a positive way? How can I use it to be an ally – to fight injustice and confront racism?
That turns out to be a complex question. During the Portland protests in July, the “Wall of Mom’s” were mostly white women, who moved in to block the federal agents Trump sent to accost the protestors. They called themselves the “Anti-Karens,” because they saw themselves as using their privilege to protest against the same systemic racism and classism that Karens seek to exploit. Sounds great, right? Not so fast.
In an opinion article in the August 10, 2020 issue of the Washington Post, Christopher Sebastian Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington, writes, “If White people truly want to be effective allies to the freedom struggle, they need to quickly move away from center stage. Otherwise a generational opportunity could be lost over well-intentioned but misguided ‘help’ from antifa activists, walls of moms and practitioners of naked yoga.” Parker argues, “…Black political theorists, from Frederick Douglas to Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and beyond, have considered – and often disagreed about – the proper role of White supporters. But there was consensus on the key point: The Black community must unambiguously take the lead in its liberation. Agency is essential. ”
For women like me, the “Good Karens” if you will, the time has come to answer the call to be actively anti-racist: to take on the responsibility to become more aware of systemic racism and our own unacknowledged privilege. But we should be careful not to throw that Karen privilege around like toddlers with flame-throwers. It’s not about us.
A friend of mine sent me a tweet (from @criticalhotcop.) “You’re not one of the good white people. There are no good white people. There are only anti-racist white people and racist white people. Anti-racism is a lifelong project and the end goal is not for you to be good. It’s for society to be good.”
There is a lot that I don’t know. So it’s up to me to give myself an education by reading black authors and really listening to black voices. I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and I think that was a really great place to start. The book chronicles the abuses inherent in the Jim Crow south and the mass migration of southern blacks to the north and west, seeking a better, more just existence. I’m now on to “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and next on my list is everything by James Baldwin. I can’t describe how eye opening these books are for me. I knew these things happened, but reading these works has made me so much more aware and sensitive to the history and ongoing reality of racism in America. While reading is important, I must also be willing to continue having those unsettling and uncomfortable conversations with myself about my own entitlement.
In the meantime, despite being mocked for it, I am still generally the person amongst my family and friends who is called upon to complain to the manager (in one form or another) when needed. A few mornings ago, I heard my husband shouting. I went outside and saw that he was trying to get the attention of the construction workers remodeling the house next door. We have become accustomed to the pounding of hammers and whirring of drills, but they had gone too far. They were blaring their music at full volume, and it echoed throughout our house and the neighborhood. My husband was yelling over the din to ask them to please turn it down, but the music was so loud they couldn’t hear him. I joined him on the patio, put two fingers in my mouth, let out a piercing whistle, and when they looked up, made the “turn down the radio” twisty motion with my hand. They did. I thanked them and went back to my office.
Having a Karen around can come in handy sometimes.
Karen Gaul Schulman is a writer and attorney who lives in Los Angeles, California. She left her family law practice of 30 years to pursue a life of letters and play with her grandchildren. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University LA.