How Karen became a meme and what real life thinks about it

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

Aside from a shared name, Sun – a 23-year-old Chinese-American woman – doesn’t exactly match the stereotype of a middle-aged, middle-class white woman who, to use Sun’s words, acts as if she can take whatever she wants. “

But Sun, who has worked in the fast food sector for years, has met 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 also came to symbolize a certain stereotype of white. And Susan. And Chad.

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

The modern iterations of these names come from entertainment, he said. Even the comedian Dane Cook, a little since 2005, has used “Karen” as the kick of a joke, as a placeholder for the friend that nobody really liked.

Brock also referred to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit song “Baby Got Back” as an example. The introduction to the song notoriously begins with a reference to a stranger “Becky”, insulting an unnamed black woman: “Oh, my God, Becky, look at his ass. He’s so big. He looks like one of those rap-girlfriends “.

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

But the story goes even further. The blacks, he said, also had names for whites who wanted to be in charge, but actually had no control over them.

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Miss Ann is an example of this, from the moment of slavery. It was a name that black slaves would specifically use to refer to white women who wanted to exercise power over them – power they really didn’t have, said Brock.

So even though the names have changed now – we have largely replaced “Miss Ann” with “Becky” and “Karen” – the idea behind the names is still the same.

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

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

In other words? It’s about some white women ‘s desire to exercise control over black people – just as it was during slave times, just as it was in 1992 and just as it persists today, she said.

Names like Karen or Becky? It’s an act of resistance from blacks, Brock said. It gives a name to the behavior and acts as a way to get solidarity on an injustice, maybe laugh at it and spend the day.

What a “Karen” symbolizes

For the term “Karen”, part of its charm is that this name exists, for the most part, in antiquity. And in this regard, it is a powerful moniker for someone definitely out of this world.

Just look at the child’s name data from the Social Security Office. Between 1951 and 1968, the name “Karen” peaked – sitting rather in the top 10 for the most popular baby name in the United States.

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But in 2018, the most recent year available, “Karen” was ranked 635 in the most popular, rather declining, names.

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

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

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

The The phenomenon was exposed by the “BBQ Becky” incident in 2018, the viral video showing how a white woman called the police over a group of black people barbecuing in a public park, claiming to have broken the law. At the beginning of the video, the woman asserts herself, but eventually, when the police arrive, she burst into tears, saying, “I was molested.”

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White women – particularly “Karens” – are able to gather sympathy for showing their fragility, Brock explained, taking away the attention that they did something wrong and would have been called for it.

“They are running away with behavior that no one else would want,” he explained.

How Karens feels about the term

So what do real people named Karen think about it?

Sun told CNN that nobody has ever seriously called them “Karen”. Of course it comes, they said, and sometimes they use it jokingly. But they don’t think it’s an insult at all.

“There is no real systemic oppression there,” they said. “It won’t stop you from getting married or getting health care, you’re just reciting the right and rudeness and that’s why they call you a ‘Karen’.”

Karen Sun:

However, Sun noted that having the name Karen 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, had a similar feeling.

Although she knows that memes or comments aren’t specifically addressed to her, she said it may still seem a little personal – if only because it’s her name.

Now, Shim said he may feel less comfortable speaking in certain situations, for fear that someone might, even jokingly, make fun of his “Karen” move.

But Shim, who is Korean and Chinese, also said that her name isn’t the first thing people would likely judge – it would be her race, she said.

Sun agreed.

“There is already a way in which I move in the world, like someone who is strange and not white,” they said. “Even with the association of names, it adds another level, but I’m not necessarily defined by that level.”

Karen Chen, a 20-year-old woman based in North Carolina, told CNN that although the association of her name to the stereotype makes her feel slightly uncomfortable, she said that she is comfortable with its use.

Karen Chen:

“I know it’s obviously just a name, and this is in no way representative of me and how people think I am,” he said.

More than the name itself, what actually disturbs Chen are the implications of the actions of a “Karen” and how the use of their privilege can come at the expense of marginalized groups.

Brock, although in particular he was not named Karen, summed it up as follows: “If you are offended by an archetype, this says more about the fact that your insecurities are a liberal ally, rather than 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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