Karen used to be such an innocuous name. Not anymore. Now it’s an insult. 

Karen is the entitled, officious middle-aged white woman who wants to speak to the manager. More ominously, she and Ken, her male counterpart, are racists. They are “unashamed exploiters of white entitlement.”

Have you heard about the woman in San Francisco who called the cops on a Filipino man who was stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on his own property? She was named Lisa, but she’s a Karen. So, too, is the most notorious Karen, Amy Cooper. When a Black man in Central Park politely asked her to leash her dog, as required in that area of the park, she called 911 and, faking fear and panic, said that an African American man was threatening her. 

Karen episodes blow up on social media. They attract millions of likes, shares, and retweets, and often cross over into the mainstream media. Each Karen is shamed and mocked relentlessly. Her real name is discovered and announced, and she sometimes issues a public apology. 

Why are the Karen episodes so fascinating to so many people? How can we understand their psychological power?

Naming a Phenomenon Is Validating and Clarifying

Stories about people who behave in Karen-like ways can be important. They can make an impression. Their power is amplified when they are all gathered together under the umbrella of a unifying name. Now the next person is not just another obnoxious, entitled, potentially dangerous figure. She’s a Karen. A Karen becomes “a thing.” The meme is a way of understanding a broader phenomenon, of recognizing that these are not just isolated, unrelated instances. The label clarifies an important psychological dynamic and makes it recognizable.

Naming can be validating to those who wondered whether their own experiences or impressions were unique or worth taking seriously. That happened, for instance, when terms such as such as “sexism” and #MeToo first gained traction, and it is happening now with the Karen meme.

Calling Out a Karen Wrestles Power from the Perpetrator and Hands It to Her Targets and Their Sympathizer

At least as far back as the days of Emmett Till, white women have had life-threatening power over Black boys and men. When Amy Cooper called the authorities on Christian Cooper (no relation), it was not at all inconceivable that Christian Cooper could have ended up dead. That same weekend, George Floyd did end up dead (though not at the hands of a Karen, but the knee of a police officer). 

Christian Cooper had a modern-day tool of resistance — a cellphone. He recorded the incident and it was posted on Twitter. The masses swooped in and the tables were turned. Now it was Amy Cooper, not Christian, who was threatened and shamed. Now it was she who needed to deal with the consequences. That can be enormously satisfying to anyone who has ever been victimized by a Karen or a Ken, and to everyone who is appalled by such blatantly racist acts, even if they do not approve of public shaming or swarming.

The Thrill of Taking Down a Karen Is Shared

When a person is publicly exposed as a Karen (or a Ken), it is not just Karen’s intended victim who has the opportunity to relish the vindication. The sense of outrage at Karen is shared. On social media platforms and beyond, wide swaths of humanity gather to mock and taunt. It is the difference between watching a cult hit in a movie theater with fellow adoring fans (the Karen meme) and viewing it when you are home alone (no Karen meme). The public vilifying may not be commendable, but it is powerful.

The Humor of the Karen Meme Opens a Path to More Serious Matters

Is there a risk that humor trivializes the grave matters at stake? At Forbes, Seth Cohen argued that “meme-like attitudes mask the inherent offensiveness and hurtful attitudes of these individuals’ actions.” He believes that “the offending individuals should be described in the stinging terms that describe what their actions represent — racism, white entitlement, and unchecked privilege.” 

Assistant Professor Apryl Williams of the University of Michigan also acknowledges that “the cutesy-ness or the laughability sort of minimizes or masks the fact that these women are essentially engaging in violence.” But, as she told Time magazine, “the humor is a way of dealing with the pain of the violence.”

It has other advantages, too. “For white people,” she noted, “it can help them recognize a pattern of behavior that they don’t want to be a part of, but might be complicit in.” The memes have value for Black people, too, “as a news source, evidence, and an archive of the injustices, the attempts to control bodies and situations.”

It has become a bit of a national cliché that we need to have a conversation about race. What sort of conversation seems less fraught and more likely to occur: the one that starts with, “we need to talk about racism and white entitlement” or the one that begins with laughing at Karen? 

The Karen Characters Are Held Accountable

Amy Cooper, the Central Park Karen, did not just get shamed. She also lost her job, and for a while, her dog. She has even been criminally charged with filing a false police report.

Even more significantly, the Karen meme, together with other avenues of awareness and activism, can result in institutionalized social change. In Oregon, for example, people who are victims of racist calls to 911, similar to the one placed by Amy Cooper, can now sue the callers. The Karen meme may seem silly, but it is also powerful.

Photo by Justin Aikin

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