What Is a Karen, and What Do We Do With Her?

By Rachel Ross and Hannah RileyLast Updated Sep 21, 2020 8:46:36 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: @melodyMcooper/Twitter, Lisa Berg/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images and @mxmiinikki/Instagram

She stomps down the store aisle, her rhinestone-emblazoned top glinting in the fluorescent lighting. Her nostrils flare with the fury of 1,000 dragons as her eyes narrow, but not a hair is out of place in her highlighted helmet of an A-line bob. A heady aroma of white privilege and drugstore perfume permeates the air. Suddenly you hear it — a rhythmic cascade of acrylic nails drumming the counter beyond your register. Her name is Karen, and she's here to speak with your manager.

The infamous "Karen" has actually become a popular internet and real-life villain, blowing up (literally) even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what exactly is a Karen, where did all these Karens come from and what do we do with them? We’ve got the answers. Here’s the story behind the internet’s loud, rude and self-centered enemy, Karen.

What Is a Karen?

"Karen" is a slang term often referring to a middle-aged white woman who acts entitled and rude, usually while expecting special treatment that she doesn’t actually deserve. Other common Karen behaviors include bullying retail and restaurant employees, having close-minded viewpoints and throwing public tantrums over the slightest inconveniences. She acts out with little respect for others, thinking whatever Karen wants, Karen gets.

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Photo Courtesy: iilluminaughtii/YouTube, @SethAbramson/Twitter and @melodyMcooper/Twitter

She has a terrible attitude, a questionable haircut and an unreasonable grudge against science, so don’t even think about bringing up the topic of vaccines. For some odd reason, she loves speaking to managers too — usually to complain about not getting something she thinks she’s entitled to. The title can actually be given to anyone who exhibits Karen behavior, no matter the race or gender.

Of course, whatever happens in society goes on social media, and Karen’s antics are no exception. Even if you haven’t had the displeasure of sighting one in the wild, you’re almost sure to encounter one online. One of the most recent examples of a Karen on the loose took place when one demanded a refund from Burger King employees...while the restaurant was on fire and they were evacuating the burning building. When the staff encouraged her to get away from the fire, she screamed and insulted them. That’s a typical Karen — putting her wants before everyone else’s needs (and in this case, lives). In the beginning, Karen was just someone with a ridiculous haircut and laughable complaints. However, she has turned into something far more dangerous lately.

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Unfortunately, there are many more racially charged undertones to the typical Karen that’s now emerging in society. Recently, she’s become more sinister, using her white privilege to endanger the lives of others, such as by unjustly calling the cops on people of color. For instance, Amy Cooper, also known as "Central Park Karen," called the police on an innocent Black man, falsely claiming that he was threatening her life. He was actually just asking her to leash her dog, and she was the one making threats. She took the opportunity to try to turn him into a potential target of police violence, knowing that police brutality routinely and disproportionately affects people of color. This version of Karen is definitely not funny. It’s a serious problem.

Where Did “Karen” Come From?

Linguists searched far and wide, concluding Karen perhaps has more than one origin. The term has been sighted in an old Reddit post of a man complaining about his ex-wife Karen, Mean Girls and even a 2005 skit by comedian Dane Cook in which he jokes about the most hated friend in the group. Karen may have also began as "a Black meme used to describe white women who tattle on kids’ lemonade stands." Wherever Karen came from, it has evolved in digital culture through memes and social media platforms to the point where Karen is now notorious on Twitter and Tik Tok. The Karen phenomenon is also showing no signs of stopping, and Karens are evolving.

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Photo Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/IMDb, Joe Coomber/FilmMagic/Getty Images and Michelle Dione Snider/YouTube

Karen isn’t the only basic name used to describe people with patterns of behavior. Yes, that means you have to watch out for other people besides her. Karen joins Becky or "BBQ Becky," a phrase coined after a white woman called the police on Black people barbecuing in a park. Joining their ranks are others like Permit Patti, Golf Cart Gail and the male counterpart, Chad. But no matter what they’re called, these names all start to refer to one type of person: an entitled white woman who uses her privilege to subjugate people based on their race, often using their mundane activities as an excuse to target them.

Some people believe that the term Karen is offensive and sexist, but others argue that it's a way to call out unjust situations as well as certain people who get away with being racist, entitled and ignorant. Karen’s behavior and superiority mindset come from a history of violent white women who have used their privilege and victimhood as weapons. Some people compare today’s Karen to Carolyn Bryant, who falsely accused Emmett Till of offending her. The false statement led to Till’s brutal lynching. Today’s Karens are similarly emboldened by their privilege, seeming to care less about the potentially deadly consequences for the people they’re harassing and more about having an excuse to feel powerful or in control.

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What to Do When You Run Into a Karen

With all the offensive and problematic things Karens do and say, who would want to run into one? Unfortunately, many people have already encountered Karens. If you haven’t, hopefully, you never will. But it’s always a wise idea to be prepared to respond to Karens in the wild.

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Photo Courtesy: @jaimetoons/Twitter, CBS New York/YouTube and @kharyp/Twitter

Karens typically roam stores and restaurants, waiting for a chance to attack workers, get attention from managers and wield their white privilege. If a Karen can’t catch exactly what she’s after, she hunts at parks and on city streets to start an argument with people minding their own business or enjoying their day. These Karens are hungry for control, the spotlight and the opportunity to feel superior.

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She may pretend to know everything about the area and threaten to call the police on people of color (SF Karen). She may also act out when she knows she has done something wrong (coughing Karen). However, she will certainly raise her voice and begin throwing accusations. That’s the cue to back away or scare her away by calling for help or filming the incident. She’s already made her choice to bully you or someone in your vicinity, so if you decide to spook her with your phone or by calling for backup, she’ll hopefully back down.

We could also try banishing Karens from public spaces or luring them to an anger management class, sure, but showing them how to be decent human beings may make the most impact in decreasing the number of Karens in the world. As much as we want Karen to recognize her offensive behavior by correcting her, it may be difficult to engage with Karen because of her victimhood mindset. As a result, engaging with Karen’s victims may be a better approach. Be kind to those who are targets of Karen’s wrath. Demonstrate how to behave and how to treat others with respect. Focusing on the act of helping the victim can be a teachable moment for terrible Karens, showing them how their behavior is unacceptable in society.

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But we can also take things a step further in showing Karen just how despicable her actions are: with legislation. On July 7, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced an ordinance that would make it illegal for people to make Karen-style discriminatory calls to the police. Called the CAREN Act, which stands for "Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-emergencies," the name is a clear nod to Karen and her targeting of people of color during fraudulent emergency calls. If this proposal passes, it'll "make it unlawful for an individual to contact law enforcement solely to discriminate on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

This ordinance, along with similar California legislation to classify discriminatory 911 calls as hate crimes, represents a step in the right direction for handling, penalizing and ultimately discouraging Karen's behavior. But it's important to remember to focus on the goals of this bill instead of its name. It's essential not to trivialize the severity of Karen's behavior by continuing to meme-ify and find amusement in a person whose actions weaponize race and could ultimately result in someone's death. Instead of honing in on the title of the ordinance, let's use it as a template for policies that could make Karens around the country think twice about the harm of their actions and protect their victims in the process. It's time to start making contact with local leaders and demand tangible, legal consequences for Karen. It couldn't be clearer that it's time for change, and if these laws are an effective way to head down that road, then let's start making calls.

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