How Karen became a meme and what real-life Karens think

Lisa Nakamura is the director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan, and has studied feminist theory and digital media theory.

In addition to a shared first name, Sun, a 23-year-old Chinese-American, doesn’t exactly match the stereotype of a middle-aged, middle-class white woman who, to use Sun’s words, acts as if “she could get what you want “.

But Sun, who has spent years working in the fast food industry, has found his fair share of “Karens.”

But where do these terms come from and what do they represent? And what does it mean for people of color, people like Sun, who find themselves sharing a name with this stereotype?

How the term “Karen” started

Although these names have recently become popular, thanks to the cultural strength of Black Twitter, these names are nothing new.

It’s not just “Karen”, of course. There are also names like “Becky”, which has also come to symbolize a certain stereotype of whiteness. And Susan. And Chad

André Brock is an associate professor at Georgia Tech, and has spent years studying the intersections of race and digital culture.

Modern iterations of these names come from entertainment, he said. Even comedian Dane Cook, in a bit of 2005, used “Karen” as the butt of a joke, as a placeholder for the friend that nobody really liked.

Brock also referenced the 1992 hit Sir Mix-A-Lot song “Baby Got Back” as an example. The intro to the song begins with a reference to an unknown “Becky”, insulting an unnamed black woman: “Oh my gosh, Becky, look at her butt. It’s so big. It looks like one of those rap guys.” girlfriends. “

And who could forget Beyoncé’s iconic line “You better call Becky with the good hair” from her album “Lemonade” in 2016?

But the story goes back even further. Blacks, he said, have also had names for white people who wanted to be in charge but who really had no control over them.

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Miss Ann is an example, from the time of slavery. It was a name that black slaves would use specifically to refer to white women who wanted to exercise power over them, a power that they did not actually have, Brock said.

So while the names have changed now, we have largely replaced “Miss Ann” with “Becky” and “Karen”, the idea behind the names remains the same.

The pattern of use of these basic names has continued. In 2018, after a white woman called a group of blacks roasting in a public park to the police, the term “BBQ Becky” was coined. In 2020, when Amy Cooper called police about a black man in Central Park who asked him to put his dog on a leash, the phrase “Karen” abounded on social media.

“It’s always about the gaze,” explained Brock. “And the desire to control what is in the gaze.”

In other words? It is about the desire of some white women to exercise control over blacks, just as it was during the time of slavery, as it was in 1992 and as it persists today, she said.

Names like Karen or Becky? It is an act of resistance by blacks, Brock said. It puts a name to behavior and acts as a way to gain solidarity in the face of injustice, perhaps laugh at it and get on with your day.

What a “Karen” symbolizes

For the term “Karen”, part of its appeal is that this name exists, for the most part, in ancient times. And in that sense, it’s a powerful nickname for someone decidedly out of touch.

Just look at the baby’s name details from the Social Security Office. Between 1951 and 1968, the name “Karen” reached its peak, ranking in the top 10 of the most popular baby name in the US. USA

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But in 2018, the most recent year available, “Karen” was ranked 635 in the most popular names, quite the fall from grace.

Lisa Nakamura is director of the University of Michigan Institute for Digital Studies and has studied feminist theory and digital media theory.

“Karen is a name that no one would name her son anymore,” said Lisa Nakamura, director of the University of Michigan Institute for Digital Studies, bluntly.

So using a name like “Karen,” Nakamura explained, is part of locating someone and their actions, in a regressive period of time.

the The phenomenon was exhibited by the “BBQ Becky” incident in 2018, the viral video showing how a white woman called police to a group of black people roasting in a public park, alleging they were breaking the law. At the beginning of the video, the woman affirms herself, but at the end, when the police arrive, she burst into tears and said: “They are harassing me.”

A white woman called the police for blacks to barbecue. This is how the community responded

White women, specifically “Karens,” can generate sympathy for showing their frailty, Brock explained, moving away from the spotlight that they did something wrong and would be called for it.

“They are dating behavior that no one else would,” he explained.

How Karens feels about the term

So how do real people called Karen feel about this?

Sun told CNN that no one has seriously called them “Karen.” It sure comes up, they said, and sometimes they play it off. But they don’t think it’s an insult at all.

“There is no real systemic oppression there,” they said. “It won’t prevent you from getting married, or getting medical attention, you’re just acting rude and rude and that’s why they call you ‘Karen.'”

Karen Sun:

Still, Sun noted that having Karen’s name has had some impact on the way they navigate the world, at least on the way they choose when to speak.

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Karen Shim, a 23-year-old girl based in Philadelphia, has had a similar feeling.

Although she knows that some meme or comment is not directed specifically at her, she said that it can still feel a bit personal, if only by name.

Now, Shim said she might be less comfortable talking in certain situations, for fear that someone, even jokingly, would tease her “Karen” move.

But Shim, who is Korean and Chinese, also said that her name is not the first thing people would probably judge her by, that would be her race, she said.

Sun agreed.

“There is already a way that I move in the world, as someone who is strange and not white,” they said. “Even with the name association, add another layer, but that layer doesn’t necessarily define me.”

Karen Chen, a 20-year-old from North Carolina, told CNN that although associating her name with the stereotype makes her feel a little awkward, she said it’s okay with its use.

Karen Chen:

“I know it is obviously just a name, and this is not representative of me and how people think I am,” he said.

More than the name itself, what really bothers Chen are the implications of a “Karen’s” actions, and how the use of his privilege can cost marginalized groups.

Brock, while notably not named Karen, summed it up this way: “If you are offended by an archetype, that says more about your insecurities as a liberal ally, than it does about the people who use that word to describe an unfair situation.” “

In other words, you can be a Karen without being a “Karen”.

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Cory Weinberg

About the Author: Cory Weinberg

Cory Weinberg covers the intersection of tech and cities. That means digging into how startups and big tech companies are trying to reshape real estate, transportation, urban planning, and travel. Previously, he reported on Bay Area housing and commercial real estate for the San Francisco Business Times. He received a "best young journalist" award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

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