Karen: How a popular name went on to become a term used to mock anger and arrogance of privileged white women

Karen: How a popular name went on to become a term used to mock anger and arrogance of privileged white women
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In a recent incident, a New York woman was dubbed “Karen” after she was caught on camera coughing intentionally on another customer at a bagel shop. The woman, later identified as Lauren Balsamo, was picking up her order at a Manhattan bagel bar when she reportedly lost her temper after being told she was putting others at risk by not wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. In another incident, a woman from California was dubbed “Karen” after she confronted and chided a Filipino man for writing "Black Lives Matter" on his own property. Later the woman, identified as Lisa Alexander, apologized for her "racist" actions and said she will take a "hard look at the meaning behind white privilege."

The term “Karen” has been cropping up in news frequently these days, and has become synonymous with the arrogance of privileged white women. It is most commonly used to describe white middle-class women, who become confrontational when things do not turn up the way they want. 

The Origin

Though no one exactly knows who coined “Karen”, it has been said that the name was popular in 1965 when a number of babies were given this name. That means in 2020, most women named Karen are middle-aged. Also, since in the 1960s, approximately 80 percent of the population was white, it can be safely assumed that the number of women named Karen in 2020 is predominantly white. However, there is no proper evidence about how the name “Karen” started being used for a white middle-aged woman throwing her privilege around.

One of the first instance of Karen being used in negative connotations was not very long ago. In Dane Cook’s 2005 comedy sketch named “The friend that nobody likes”, Karen is described as someone who “is always a bag of douche”. After that in late 2017, “Karen” again appeared on Reddit, where a user posted negative anecdotes about his ex-wife named Karen who received custody of their children and possession of the family home. The unnamed man’s posts became so popular that they inspired a subreddit "r/F**kYouKaren", which has reportedly more than 648,000 subscribers.

And, now in the era of COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racism, the name “Karen” has made a resurgence, however, with a slight twist. “Karen has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest,” the Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in May. In the same article, Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher, and professor at Kansas State University told Tiffany that the essence of a “Karen” is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain”. Woods added a Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.”

Is it problematic to use “Karen” as a negative connotation?

Some people have raised the issue of the use of the name “Karen” to describe white privileged women’s arrogance. They have reportedly compared the term to the n-word. In April, a Twitter account posted a question: “The term ‘Karen’ is being used as a sexist and racist slur. Considering this is an equivalent of the n-word for white women, should it be banned on Twitter?”

However, many found the comparison hilarious as TV writer Matthew A. Cherry commented: “If it’s comparable. Write the whole word out and not just ‘N Word’ just like you did Karen. Just write it. I’ll write it with you.” Rap artist Talib Kweli tweeted, “Equivalent of the n-word? So, you typed Karen like it was ok, you knew not to type ‘n*****’ but somehow these words are equivalent? Now THAT is some shit Karen would do.”

“Karen? Equivalent of the ‘N’ word? My ancestors and I disagree. Uh uh, don’t go down this road,” said Democratic Party politician Cory Bush, while Author Stephanie Yeboah added: “I cannot believe people* are actually debating if 'Karen' is 1) a racist slur akin to 2) the N-word. Are you a lot well????? White women are not now, nor have they ever been, racially oppressed. Ever. Ever. How dare you equate it to the N-word? The gall.”

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