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Talking about the Karen meme with four women named...Karen

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This week the second lady of the United States, Karen Pence, addressed the nation. As a literal Karen but also a front woman for a white supremacist White House, her moment of limelight offers an opportunity to reflect on the Karen meme.

As Vox explains, “Karen” has become a

a pejorative catchall label for a wide range of behaviors thought to have connections to white privilege…The stereotype the name conjures — at least in the US — is limited mainly to white women in their mid-30s or 40s. The archetypal “Karen” is blonde, has multiple young kids, and is usually an anti-vaxxer. Karen has a “can I speak to the manager” haircut and a controlling, superior attitude to go along with it.

More recently, as Insider notes, “The name has come to be associated with white women who call the police on Black people.”

The use of “Karen” to describe this kind of behavior has become as commonplace as it is controversial. Some have gone so far as to compare “Karen” to the new “N word.”

Here at The.Ink, where we never sidestep the most fundamental questions of our time, we decided to launch a full investigation. We interviewed four women named Karen —two white, two Black, all with a lot to say — to talk about racism, seeing your name become a meme, and the underrated brilliance of making white supremacy banal.

This, above all, is what I took away from the conversation: The genius of the Karen meme is that it helps us all see white supremacy for what it is: insufferably common.

“The police are not your personal concierge service”: a conversation with Karens

ANAND: This is like a little union we've got here. 

So Census data say there are a million Karens in the United States, but by the definitions one finds online, a Karen is an entitled and unreasonable white woman, an "anti-vaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair." What has it been like to be named Karen in recent months? 

KAREN HAYES (Black; student service coordinator at the University of Missouri; Columbia, Missouri): For me, it's been recognizing that there are people taking offense at the name Karen. I think about my mother naming me Karen. She did it because her first and last name had eight letters each, and she just wanted it to be a simple name. And so when I hear people getting all upset, I'm like, "It's a joke. We laugh at all kinds of jokes." I laughed at all the Lakeisha, the Shaquan jokes. So here we are.  

KAREN ATTIAH (Black; Global Opinions editor at The Washington Post; Washington, D.C.): My parents are immigrants from West Africa, of Ghanaian and Nigerian heritage. My mom named all of us easy American names, and for me she picked Karen. She was just like, "It was easy." She said, "I wanted you to have an easy name, a white name, because we know this is America." As a Black child, and eventually a Black woman, to have a name that essentially is associated with white people, she was just like, "That's what we had to do for you guys, in order to have an easier life." Back in '86, I think my mom already recognized that “Karen” carried a certain privilege in this country.

My feeling about the meme at first was, It's not sexist. This is describing a behavior of entitlement of white women, especially of a certain age. There's a certain abusive entitlement. Now that it's being used to dismiss what you're saying if you're a woman, I don't know — it's a little much. But I still do maintain that it is a way to give language to a certain type of problematic aspect in our society when it comes to white women's role in racism in this country. So I'm glad that we have language for that. But as a younger Karen, I'm probably among the last of the Karens. 

KAREN HAYES: You are! We are becoming the Bettys. We're becoming the Bettys. Our name is going to be extinct. The last time this name was super popular was decades ago.    

ANAND: Karen Attiah, I just love that your mom was the earliest discoverer of the meme, in a way. She specifically named you Karen because she knew that it might give you an extra boost in life.  

KAREN ATTIAH: As Karen Hayes said, it's easy, short, and my name is never mispronounced.    

KAREN HAYES: Never.  

KAREN ATTIAH: I'm sure that it's gotten me through doors that I probably don't even know about, until they see me and they're like, "Oh, hi."

KAREN HAYES: Yeah, you get call-backs. You get all kinds of things, and when you walk in the door, everybody has to adjust because they weren't expecting this type of Karen.    

KAREN WILSON (white; marketing consultant; Ottawa, Canada): Karen Attiah, I read your article a few months ago about how Karen is not a slur, and I was like, "Oh...a Black Karen is speaking. This is great," because it felt like it had more weight than me defending the meme. I was defending it because I'm not personally bothered by it, because I think the behavior is more offensive than using my name to call it out. And so when I saw your article, I was like, "Oh, yay, there's a Black Karen here who's backing me up on this."

KAREN ATTIAH: Well, it's interesting you say that because I think there were times where I was like, "I need a white Karen to back me up on this.” Because in a weird way, I'm also not getting the Karen backlash because I'm not white. So in some ways they're like, "Well, it's easy for you to write that.”

KAREN HAYES: But that's American individualism. The whole thing is that, who's going to be at the top? Somebody's going to be at the bottom, and so I can't take it personal. Names in America, there are white names and there are Black names. I can say Heidi, and you're going to immediately think of a white woman. And so it all comes back to that white supremacy. The whole thing that makes it different is that Black people are saying things that we said to each other. We are not keeping them to ourselves. My mother thinks this new generation just put all the dirty laundry out, and nothing is put back.

KAREN ATTIAH: Very true.

ANAND: Karen McJunkin, tell me what you think.

KAREN MCJUNKIN (white; salesperson; Wichita, Kansas): My mom, I asked her not too long ago where my name did come from and her thought process with all of this. It wasn't anything elaborate. It was just something her and my dad actually agreed on. The funny thing is, my middle name is Yvonne. And, growing up, I thought: "Oh, Yvonne would be so cool. I should change it!" There's been a time or two lately I thought, "Darn it. Why the heck didn't I do that?"

ANAND: Has it actually been difficult? What are the daily difficulties of it, if any? 

KAREN MCJUNKIN: Actually, it's not been overly difficult for me. I work in sales, and I've actually had customers come up to me that were in our store telling me, "I hate the fact that the memes are so harsh with your name right now." They’re saying, "I bet you hate having your name." And I will tell them, "Yes I do, but at the same point in time, I know it's not me. And I know where my heart stands, and I know what I want out of life, and I know what my responsibility is."

ANAND: So there have been these critical pieces — Karen Attiah, you wrote about some of them. People have said, "Karen is the new N word." People have said it is sexist because there aren't that many viral names like this done for men. There are some, but not as many.  

I wonder if you think there's any truth in the idea that there's something racist about creating this kind of archetype to begin with?   

KAREN ATTIAH: I think the focus on having to have a male counterpart obscures how this behavior functions. 

It's specifically about white women's role at the intersection of race and gender, in both white supremacy and also in how it affects Black men versus Black women. So I think it's not being sexist; it's being specific.

And to a certain extent, using Karen is kind of brilliant. Yes, I know that it's a little bit of Karen martyrdom. We're giving our names to the cause, but I think that it's really in the sense that Karen is associated with something so common, almost — dare I say, at least personally, I used to think my name was kind of boring — 

KAREN HAYES: Yeah!     

ANAND: That's the power of the thing…

KAREN ATTIAH: That's the power of it: that it is such a common name, and it's being used to describe something that is so common in America, something that is so, so embedded in the interactions between Black people and white people, that it's almost like oxygen. It's banal, and it's only now that we're seeing some of it on camera.

ANAND: In recent years, there has been this effort to try to suggest to people that white supremacy is not this fringy activity that a small group of people engage in in militias in Northern Michigan. It's the cultural atmosphere of the United States. And so, in a way, what the name meme serves to do is to assist that argument, to say, "No, no, no. This is a normal, everyday thing. This is not fringy."   

KAREN ATTIAH: Exactly. And I think it's important to recognize that, because if white supremacy and racism were just dependent on the hooded people, it wouldn't be as pervasive as it is. There's a reason that what's-her-name, Amy Cooper, knew that playbook that she could use to say, "A Black man is threatening me!" That didn't come out of nowhere. That just has been how race and gender have intersected.

ANAND: Karen Wilson, there are so many ways that you could describe an archetype. Why do we assign a name?

KAREN WILSON: Well, I think that it appeals to the masses. It's really easy; it spreads easy. I went, actually, and I looked back to see when I first became aware of the Karen stereotype. And it was the woman in a park who basically attacked a family of Black people who were just having a BBQ.

I think it's really easy to look at someone who is of a certain age, a white woman who is behaving that way, and call them a Karen. It's much easier than talking about systemic racism and racist attitudes and anti-Black racism. It's simple.

ANAND: I wonder in this climate of polarization, when it's so hard for any of us to convince others of us of anything that we don’t already believe, do call-outs work? Does this kind of thing, particularly when it's thrown at Trump-supporting white women, change minds? Or do you think it drives people further into their corners?    

KAREN WILSON: I think it's hard because it kind of doesn't matter what their beliefs and values are. If they're not open to learning something different, they're going to dig their feet in the ground and be stubborn. They're not going to change.

ANAND: On one level, as you said, Karen Hayes, it's actually progress for people to be able to say out loud what they've been saying in private. To feel free enough to say, "This is something I experience," right? On the other hand, if the way we go about it hardens people into their camps, then we're making the world less safe for ourselves in the long run.    

That feels like the deeper dynamic of the Trump era. It's very satisfying to call people out, but are you dooming yourself in a deeper way?    

KAREN HAYES: But the thing with the call-out, just like cancel culture, it's not real. Nothing's going to stop them. They're not going to lose a job, they're not going to lose a house. It is just a statement that is made. 

For me, as a 56-year-old Black woman, I still don't feel safe in America. I don't care what the trope is. I don't care what the situation.

ANAND: Is any of you familiar with this thing in San Francisco called the CAREN Act?

KAREN HAYES: Yeah.

KAREN WILSON: I have heard of it.  

ANAND: The acronym stands for “Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies,” and the bill would change the city's legal code to punish people, aka Karens, who call 9-1-1 for false, racially biased complaints. What are all of your stances on the CAREN Act?   

KAREN ATTIAH: This is the debate. How do you curb this behavior? How do you impose consequences, so that people think twice about making possibly life-altering calls to the police? But I also do know and can understand those who are in this moment and trying to push our political imagination around what justice and consequence mean, who are saying, "We're trying to abolish the police or defund the police or think about ways to think differently about it," then how do we go back and say, "Well, a white woman who did this should be arrested through the system"?

I personally don't know what the solution is, but I do see that, at the very least, it's a symbolic recognition of trying to get people to think twice about wasting police and state resources for stupid crap. Your discomfort is not a 9-1-1 call, necessarily. The police are not your personal concierge service. I think that should be curbed. How does that square with thinking differently about community and policing? I don't know.

But I was amused that it was CAREN with a C. 

KAREN HAYES: It wasn't a real Karen!

KAREN MCJUNKIN: I know!

KAREN HAYES: That's why I didn't take offense. I'm like, "This is not me."

KAREN MCJUNKIN: I've met Caryns with a C-A-R-Y-N.

KAREN HAYES: Yes, because they were trying to do something different.

KAREN MCJUNKIN: Do Carens, C-A-R-E-N — does that exist?

KAREN WILSON: Yes, there are. I see so many different Karen spellings. C-A-R-R-I-N. I've seen so many. It's probably my Southern roots.

KAREN HAYES: It's not a real Karen.     

ANAND: If new parents, expecting parents, were to come to you and say, "Despite everything, we are thinking of naming our emerging daughter Karen," what advice would you give them?

KAREN HAYES: Go for it. It's a good name! You don't have to worry about it. The thing with the name — my daughter has a Nigerian name, and she gets hell. She can't get through the airport without a pat down and a check on her passport. She can't go to class without people thinking she is not a Black American, that maybe she was born somewhere else. It's a hell I didn't know until she was born!    

ANAND: I certainly sympathize with name difficulty.

KAREN ATTIAH: This has been such a fun conversation. This is the most Karens I think I've been on with for a while.  

ANAND: Just bringing Karens together — that's what I do.

KAREN ATTIAH: The tribe! What would I say to parents? Godspeed? No. It's a fine name, just teach your children, no matter who they are, what color they are, to treat people with respect, to be thoughtful, to be anti-racist. Not just not racist, but anti-racist. It hasn't gotten me into trouble. I think it's a fine name. Just teach your children well. At the end of the day, that's what matters.

KAREN MCJUNKIN: As much as I thought it was boring growing up, it's certainly been a good, easy name through life. After this conversation today, I actually feel a little better about being thrown under the bus, because I'm getting it from your perspectives that I don't have, in regards to being Black and being named Karen. So this has been very enlightening for me that way. I'm going to wear it a little differently from here on out.   

KAREN WILSON: Well, just be happy with the name you choose. I never liked my name growing up. I was named Karen because my mother wanted to name me Carolyn, but there were already three Carolyns in my family. So she chose something similar, and I am five to 10 years younger than every Karen I know. I'm sure Karen Attiah has similar experiences being a younger Karen. So it was a weird time growing up to have the name, but I'm actually happy with it now.

It was an interesting test to go through all of this Karen stuff because, at first, it hit me hard. Then I started really listening to what people had to say and I felt like, "Well, this isn't about me unless I behave that way, so I don't have to take it that way."

ANAND: If there is a not literal but figurative Karen reading this who hates that this label is being thrown at them, who does maybe have the behaviors, what would your advice be?

KAREN HAYES: It would be, if you don't like this, change your behavior, because that's what you have control over. I grew up with Becky, the whole Abigail thing, and now it's Karen. It's white women behaving badly to people of color, specifically Black people. So if you don't want this shade, then stop it!

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

If you’re new to The.Ink, we invite you to check out past interviews with Joy ReidNoam ChomskyIsabel Wilkerson, and Taylor Lorenz, as well as essays on Kamala Harris’ layers of identityJoe Biden’s politics of decency, and the dangers of side salads in the pursuit of change. We even offer practical personal-finance tips.

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