Karens Hall of Fame, featuring Amy Cooper, anti-mask Karen, the McCloskeys, and more. (Image Courtesy of The New York Post.)
If your name is Karen, Kevin, Becky, or Ken then you have most likely noticed an uptick in people using your name as an insult. Karen, in particular, has emerged as the frontrunner for the average, basic white person name and is paving the way for a whole category of memes.
The origin of the Karen meme started out particularly inoffensive, making light of middle-aged white women with a certain short, choppy hairstyle and that act out by saying “Can I speak to the manager?” or harassing service industry workers. Said Karens may also fall into the category of “anti-vaxxer” and maintain a controlling, superior attitude, typically stemming from white privilege. Karen’s often come from a place of white entitlement, seeing how some often harass people of color, pester food cart vendors for not having permits, or exasperate retail and restaurant workers with false-proof saying that they have medical issues and cannot wear a mask.
When you search #Karen on Instagram, you are met with over 900,000 posts relating to the meme. A large number of the most recent posts are videos of white women in grocery stores complaining about the mask mandate that most retail stores and restaurants require due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is Karen-like behavior, however the original Karen videos started way before the pandemic began, stemming from an even longer history of white female victimhood.
One of the original Karen videos in the meme zeitgeist is “Permit Patty.” in the clip, a middle-aged white woman is seen calling the police on an 8-year old girl named Jordan for selling water outside her apartment in San Francisco. Jordans mother, Erin Austin recorded the video and can be heard saying: “This woman don’t want to let a little girl sell some water, she be calling police on an 8-year-old little girl. You can hide all you want, the whole world going to see ya, boo.”
“Permit Patty” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Karens going viral for calling the police or acting out against people of color in public spaces. The infamous “BBQ Becky” is another instance of white agression where we see a white woman harassing a group of black men having a barbecue in a park because they allegedly didn’t have a permit.
Since these instances went viral, many people of color have begun using their cell phone cameras to record situations of discomfort, primarily instances of white aggression, harassment, and racial violence. The accounts of real people who have experienced racism documented in these videos and memes and the hashtag, #LivingWhileBlack, are helping to demand accountability and are helping to push forward legislation. Bills like the San Francisco CAREN act (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies), a play on the name Karen, as well as an Oregon bill that was passed in late 2019, will both punish racist 911 callers.
America has a long history of white female victimhood being weaponized. The historical narrative goes back to the myths that were constructed during the era of American slavery, where Black slaves were poised as sexual threats to white women. This ideology, however, perpetuated the idea that white women represented the good and innocence in American society, which needed to be protected by white men at all costs, thus justifying racial violence against Black men or anyone else that posed a threat to their power.
This narrative, that was the overarching theme of Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film that was the first movie to be shown at the White House, and is often cited as the inspiration for the rebirth of the KKK.
In 1955, the lynching of Emmet Till, a Black 14-year old boy in Mississippi, stemmed from the weaponization of white victimhood. Allegedly Till had offended a white woman, Carol Bryant, in her family’s grocery store, thereafter Till was then abducted and mutilated by Bryant’s husband and half-brother and then dumped in Tallahatchie River. For his funeral, Till’s mother required it to be an open casket in order to display the savageness of her son’s slaying.
“The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till Bradley exposed the world to more than her son Emmett Till’s bloated, mutilated body. Her decision focused attention not only on U.S. racism and the barbarism of lynching but also on the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy” Deborah Gray White said, in her book “Freedom On My Mind.”
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, started from an allegation from a white elevator operator that she had been assaulted by a black shoeshiner. What went down after was one of the bloodiest race massacres ever with the deaths of hundreds of Black men and women at the hands of a white mob.
“If we’re thinking about this in a historical context where white women are given the power over Black men, that their word will be valued over a Black man, that makes it particularly dangerous and that’s the problem,” says Dr. Apryl Williams, an assistant professor in communications and media at the University of Michigan and a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard who focuses on race, gender and community in digital spaces.
Amy Cooper, also known as the “Central Park Karen”, elevated a national discourse about the dangers associated when Black people are falsely accused when she called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man who was bird watching in the park, who filmed the whole incident, and politely asked Cooper to leash her dog in an area of the park that required it. Cooper called the cops on the man, invoking his race on the call. Within days Cooper was fired from her job and temporarily lost custody of her dog, as well as being charged with a false police report. In comments shared after the incident to CNN, Amy Cooper publicly apologized to Christian Cooper noting that she “is not a racist” and “did not mean to cause harm to that man in anyway.” Christian Cooper accepted her apology, but urged for viewers to focus on not just the viral clip, but the “underlying current of racism and racial perceptions.”
The Karen meme is specifically important in today’s current environment involving racial injustice because of its long history stemming from white female victimhood. Although a decent portion of Karens aren’t involved with this side of entitlement, it’s important to look at the videos of white women and notice their immediate verdict when they see a Black man minding his own business is to call the police. If the Karen memes have taught us anything, it’s to wear a mask, be aware of racial perceptions and implicit bias, recognize the history of white female victimhood as well as recognize the history of discrimination of people of color in the United States.