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Commentary: ‘Karen’ is an easy target. The truth about white nationalism is much worse

Amy Cooper with her dog
In an image made from a video provided by Christian Cooper, Amy Cooper holds her unleashed dog as she talks to Christian Cooper in New York’s Central Park.
(Christian Cooper / AP)

Karen is a woman of many faces.

She’s the furious shopper who pitches a tantrum — and her grocery basket — at Trader Joe’s employees when they ask her to comply with state regulations and wear a mask. She’s the dog walker who erupts when a Black man requests she leash her pet, weaponizing her 911 call to make a false claim: “An African American man is threatening my life!” She’s the defiant grandmother who aggressively sits on another motorist’s car to stop them from getting a parking spot she wants.

The embodiment of white female privilege, she may be the most obsessively watched meme of this particularly fraught moment in our nation’s history.

Unaffectionately called “Karens” all over Tik Tok, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, these avengers of small causes act with impunity toward anything or anyone who inconveniences them. Viral videos of middle-aged, Anglo women screaming “I want to speak to the manager!” aren’t new. But just as times have changed, so have Karen’s freakouts, and now she’s hit critical mass.

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As “Mrs. America” shows, the white female privilege displayed by Lana Del Rey and Alison Roman in recent spats is larger, and older, than either of them.

America’s nationwide reckoning with racism, in the midst of a pandemic, on top of an economic crisis, following a shortage of toilet paper, has seriously rocked Karen’s world and now, the angry lady in Capri pants is everywhere. #COVIDKaren, #GasStationKaren, #PermitKaren, #KarensGoneWild, #KarenoftheDay.

Outburst after outburst, the clips have amassed millions of views and triggered a heated debate around the meaning and intention behind the meme. Indeed, a controversy recently erupted over the national obsession with Karen’s eruptions. Several progressives, critics and feminists argue that the internet’s female archetype of white privilege is in itself sexist, part of an age-old effort to shame women who speak out. Why does the guy standing next to Karen usually get a pass?

But don’t mistake Karens for Gloria Steinem. Because the real reason most of these videos have catapulted to the top of your search results comes down to one thing: racism.

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“You’re going back to Mexico,” yells a blond woman to a Native American female in a gas station convenience store before grabbing her. The aggressor suffers a hardy slap across the face by the clip’s end. #HomeDepotKaren in Illinois cited “white power” as her excuse for refusing to wear a mask: “Yes, I am entitled. I’m white. I’m a woman.” One Karen called the police on a Black girl selling bottled water, while another demanded a cop do something about a Black family committing the heinous crime of barbecuing one Sunday in the park.

The Karen hate-watching obsession may not be healthy, but it is instructive.

Her absurdly outsized reaction to the smallest of stressors (see #RedLobsterKaren) may seem funny at first, but she’s also dangerous. Karen represents a faction of the population threatened by the prospect of losing its place atop a toxic, racial hierarchy rooted in the original sin of slavery. And she holds an ugly place in history.

Cecily Strong in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch "The Impossible Hulk"
In the March 9, 2019, episode of “Saturday Night Live,” sketch “The Impossible Hulk” sees an angry Idris Elba morph into Cecily Strong, above.
(Rosalind O’Connor / NBCU via Getty Images)
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Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was Black, was lynched in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. The woman admitted years later that the story was untrue. Perhaps Till’s life could have been spared if cameras were present to refute her story.

The resurgence of white supremacy as an accepted political ideology — from President Trump’s continuous effort to normalize and leverage bigotry to Fox News personalities painting diversity as the enemy — has no doubt emboldened Karen.

Suburban women with sassy bobs have been singled out as the go-to choice for today’s brand of intolerance. But why? From Charlottesville to George Floyd’s Memorial Day killing by Minneapolis cops, racist acts perpetrated by men aren’t exactly scarce. The pivot toward women is likely because men are much scarier, and their hate and fear of the other is associated with unspeakable acts of violence, be it the Tulsa race massacre, the KKK’s reign of terror, a mass shooting in a church or the murder of a Black man who went out for a short jog and never returned home.

The most popular memes, after all, hold some semblance of entertainment value, even when they are rooted in hate.

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Enter Karen: seemingly harmless enough to laugh at yet hateful enough to skewer. A mascot, of sorts, who bridges the gap between the violent truth of white nationalism and the satisfying reality that she often lacks power to keep people of color “in their place” and it’s freaking her the hell out.

Freaking out many viewers of the videos is the knowledge that red states are hardly Karen’s only habitat. A white couple was caught on tape condemning James Juanillo, who is Filipino, of vandalism as he stenciled “Black Lives Matter” on the wall in front of his own home in San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights. The accusatory male started the exchange but it was his female counterpart who gained TikTok notoriety.

“Are you defacing private property?” the man asked Juanillo. “You’re free to express your opinions. Just not on people’s property.”

In a furious, unfunny 27-minute set posted to the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube page, Dave Chappelle traces a path from slavery to the death of George Floyd.

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“So if I did live here and it was my property, this would be absolutely fine?” Juanillo replied. “And you don’t know if I live here or if this is my property.”

“We actually do know,” chimed in “Karen,” who claimed to know the homeowner, and of course threatened to call the police. When the video was posted on Twitter, #SanFranciscoKaren bore the brunt of the shaming. Juanillo called her approach “polite” racism, “like respectfully, you don’t belong here.”

Women have lacked power for so long that even while exhibiting racism they aren’t taken completely seriously. A 2019 “SNL” skit starring Idris Elba satirized that bottled rage in a spoof based on “The Incredible Hulk.” They renamed it “The Impossible Hulk.” When Elba’s character felt he was being treated unfairly, his rage triggered a violent transformation and he morphed from a Black man into an angry, entitled white woman. When she raged, exasperated waiters and store clerks acquiesced.

Karen will not be ignored, but she can certainly be shamed. She should also be feared.


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