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How 'Karen' Became the Most Powerful Slur in America
what began as an innocuous customer service meme now has the power to ruin the lives of one specific group of americans: white women
Earlier this week, Uber put head of its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department Bo Young Lee on leave after workers complained about a pair of sessions she ran titled “Don’t Call Me ‘Karen’” that focused on race and being a white woman. Young is Asian, but that means very little when the people complaining are black and Hispanic, the golden geese in a race-obsessed industry where Asian executives are a dime a dozen. On Slack, one person remarked, “I felt like I was being scolded for the entirety of that meeting.” Others questioned the premise that the word “Karen” shouldn’t be used.
A decade ago, one would have wondered why “Karen” would have come up in a DEI meeting at all. Back then, the term had little to do with race: it referred to a middle-class, middle-aged, entitled suburban woman with an asymmetrical bob haircut. She was a caricature of the sort of impossible-to-please tyrant one encounters while working in customer service — nothing more or less.
But in 2020, “Karen” took on an explicitly racist connotation after a New York woman named Amy Cooper called the police on a black man named Christain Cooper, who she thought was threatening her and her dog. Previous controversies involving white women calling the police on black people for frivolous or racially motivated reasons were usually alliterative and related to the situation: for example, there was BBQ Becky and Golfcart Gail. Why Amy Cooper was labeled “Karen” — rather than “Dogwalker Donna” or “Leash-Law Lisa” — isn’t clear, but the circumstances of the case forever changed the meaning of the word.
As a result, Amy suffered immensely. She was doxxed, sent death threats, fired from her job, and charged with filing a false police report. A year later, in a podcast episode that revealed crucial details about the incident that had been ignored in initial reporting, Amy told Kmele Foster that Christian had a history of trying to lure dogs away from their owners, that he’d gotten into previous altercations with dog-walkers in the park, that she was a sexual assault survivor, that her increasingly frantic tone in the video was due to a bad connection with a 9-1-1 operator who couldn’t hear her, and that after the incident, she had been harassed to such a degree that she’d fled the US.
Just last week, pregnant New York City nurse Sarah Comrie was branded the “CitiBike Karen” for appearing in a viral video insisting, to a group of black guys, that the CitiBike she rented was indeed hers. High-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump posted the video, claiming that Comrie was attempting to steal the bike from the guys, and was “weaponizing her tears as a threat.” “This is EXACTLY the type of behavior that has endangered so many Black men in the past!” said Crump in a now-deleted tweet. And even after the New York Post published receipts proving that Comrie had paid for the bike, left-wing influencer Michael McWhorter, better known as TizzyEnt, invoked a famous 20th-century lynching case in defense of his and others’ reaction to the video, comparing Sarah Comrie to Carolyn Bryant, “the woman whose lies got Emmett Till brutally murdered.”
Comrie’s crying in the video was also a particular point of criticism, as the tears of white women have been ascribed great malign power. There’s a soft misogyny in Karen-ology: “Karen” is never portrayed as the purveyor of racist violence herself, but rather its conduit. The supreme manipulator, she has at her disposal, merely a sob away, the full power of direction over a racist state, a white supremacist culture, and, if needed, a lynch mob. Robin D’Angelo, whose 2018 book White Fragility re-entered the bestseller list after the George Floyd and Amy Cooper incidents, dedicates a great deal to the subject of white women’s tears. DiAngelo, who is white, wrote that “[f]or people of color, our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege,” and “[t]here is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman's distress…our tears trigger the terrorism of this history.” But what DiAngelo, and virtually everyone involved in Karen-ology ignores, is the present. Black men aren’t lynched for actual rapes of white women in this country today, much less fictional ones, and unless we’re to believe that American blacks are beset by PTSD-like epigenetic memories from their oppressed ancestors, there’s no reason to believe they think about Emmett Till’s body whenever their white lady colleagues cry in the office.
A few days ago, Fox News presenter Will Cain opined that “Karen” is a “racial slur for white women.” Perhaps, but its function is different than that of other slurs, racial or otherwise. Calling a Chinese person a “chink,” for example, is not an allegation, it's just a hateful way to refer to his ethnicity, and he won’t be a dollar richer or poorer for it. Slurs for women generally tend to be more accusatory: bitch, cunt, and whore, for example, are judgments of character that might damage a woman’s personal reputation, but are unlikely to cost her a job. To be called “Karen,” however, can result in the total loss of one’s career — as was the case with Cooper — and unlike bitch, cunt, and whore, it’s a term specifically reserved for white women. If “Karen” is a slur, rather than a more precise synonym for “racist,” it’s the most powerful slur in America today.
None of this is to say that white women represent an oppressed class in America, merely that they’re uniquely vulnerable to having their lives ruined if they’re smeared with a pejorative unique to their racial and sexual demographic, something which isn’t true for any other group of Americans. Uniquely in America, these members of the physically weaker sex are told that they must not express any fear of men outside their race, even when they’re alone in the woods with one who is verbally threatening them. If they’re afraid, and their fear turns out to be unfounded, they’ll be ruined, and like Amy Cooper, their name will be evoked in other high-profile “Karen” stories three years later in the New York Times with no more nuance than was initially reported. They’ll be forever stuck in the narrative, their names loosely associated with Mississippi lynchings that happened before they were born. And for what and whom? To placate a handful of college-educated narcissists at the biggest tech companies in the world? To make aggressive liberal white women in journalism feel superior to their less race-conscious counterparts? After all, it could never happen to them, could it?
People have convinced themselves there’s karmic justice in ruining the lives of white women, never questioning why it’s so easy to do in spite of such entrenched white supremacy. The worst of it is none of them seem to care when they get it wrong. In such cases, the thin pretext of “accountability” is shattered. They never wanted change. They wanted a head on a spike.