Karen, co-opted

One of my friends brought to my attention a conversation around the term, “Karen,” in econ twitter.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Karen is the slang term for a privileged entitled white woman who uses her privilege and authority to harm a minority person.  Karens are often seen in videos calling the police on an innocent black person or family, and have the catch phrase, “let me talk to the manager.”

But one important aspect of Karening in its original slang definition is that they are using their privilege for evil.  They’re punching down.  They’re using unjustified anger at minorities simply being in their space to harass and hurt people.

Unfortunately, the term Karen has been co-opted by white men and the occasional metaphorical Karen to mean any strong white woman who is not afraid to speak her mind or, mind-bogglingly, any white woman who follows rules.  So a friend was called a Karen for very briefly blocking traffic in an alley to close a gate that needed to be closed.  White women politely asking other white people to put on their masks have been called Karens.  White women protesting racist and misogynistic men on twitter have been termed Karens by those same white men.

The term is no longer just shorthand for “privileged entitled jerk who uses authority to punch down” when white men and women use it.  It has become a tool of oppression used by more privileged people to keep women down.  Not because of people correctly using it in its originally intended purpose, but by others perverting the meaning to reinforce patriarchal structures of oppression.  Instead of being a term used by the rebellion to free, it’s being used by the evil empire to oppress.

So after some discussion in which my friend said she did not like the term Karen and I noted that I liked its original use (though we both feel sorry for non-Karens named Karen), we came to an agreement.

First, we decided that white men are not allowed to use the term Karen.  When white men use it, no matter how they use it, it is punching down.  Next we discussed white women’s use and decided that it’s either punching down or sideways and there’s not much lost by white women no longer using the term.  They can say entitled privileged jerk, or what have you.  So we agreed that if white people stop using the term “Karen” then its powerful short-hand use can be preserved by the people who truly understand the definition and who need it most.  (I reserve the right to use the term “Karen” when the woman in question is actually named Karen because puns.)

Language evolves, and if enough people use a sexist version of the term Karen, the term itself will do harm.  (And c’mon, white men are even worse– can’t we stop protecting them from their terrible actions too?)

Who do you think should use the word Karen?  What should white people say instead?

31 Responses to “Karen, co-opted”

  1. Chelsea Says:

    My beef with “Karen” is that it’s from the wrong generation. The name Karen (this is coming from babynamewizard.com – the site that tracks the popularity of baby names over time using social security data) peaked in use in the 1950s. So a “Karen” is really like 68 years old. We should be talking about “Jennifers” (peaked in the 1970s) or “Jessicas” (peaked in the 1980s).

    Actually, I hate terms like this and agree that calling someone an entitled jerk or bully (if that is how they are behaving) is much better (though admittedly longer and less catchy).

  2. Alice Says:

    I don’t think anyone should use “Karen,” as anything other than a first name. Regardless of the user’s race, age, gender, or financial status. However it may have started, it’s become a way to devalue women, to tell them to shut up and not use their voices. It’s being used for misogyny.

    If you want to label someone as rude, entitled, or racist, those terms exist and can be used. But “Karen” has 100% become about misogyny, whether male-vs-female or female-vs-female. I don’t think anyone should use it.

    • FF Says:

      I agree completely with Alice. I don’t use this term and find it sexist and dehumanizing.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Do you find it sexist and dehumanizing because of how it has been co-opted, or do you find it sexist and dehumanizing when minority people use it to describe white women who call the police on minorities whose only crime is existing?

      • FF Says:

        I’ve never actually heard someone use it in person, minority or not–I’ve just read about it, maybe seen it used on TV. Where I’ve seen used, it is mostly to dismiss middle-aged white woman and/or get them to shut up and not necessarily for racist, punching-down behavior. I guess I would come down for disliking how it’s been coopted, but I would prefer that the actual racist behavior be called out for what it is..

    • Leah Says:

      I also dislike the use of Karen (and other names too). I just find it sloppy shorthand that turns mean all too quickly.

  3. Susan Says:

    My husband and I call them Princesses. It names them from their sense of entitlement.

  4. middle_class Says:

    Yes this is such an important point! Why isn’t there a shorthand for entitled white men? I vote for Brad.

    And instead of Karen, how about Amy for Amy cooper?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My first thought was… Sheldon’s wife? But then I realized it is really unlikely she changed her name. (We’re still like 5 seasons behind.) Then I vaguely remembered the central park lady. There’s just been so many of them! They seem to make the news in waves… do you remember that poor woman who some entitled jerk called campus police on because she fell asleep in her own common area at Yale?

      Brad definitely works!

    • kt Says:

      If you look at some memes (that for various reasons have not hit the mainstream the way Karen has) there are definitely Brad and Chad.

      Do not forget Barbecue Becky! I liked it better when the memes were alliterative.

    • SP Says:

      I think there is a Chad as a white male thing… Not sure what exactly he signifies though.

      I actually hadn’t really heard it in terms of mocking women calling the police (or managers) on minorities, and just assumed it was a more general mocking of “can i speak to the manager” wealthy white women types.

      (Also, where did all the jessicas and Jennifers even go? I don’t think I know any Jessicas anymore, and not many Jennifers.)

  5. becca Says:

    Well I was going to say that as a Becky, I’m just glad my hair is no longer under scrutiny. But then I read the comments ;-)

    But more seriously, I had noticed exactly this. I am familiar with the origin of “Karen”, and how it’s being used and found it unsettling in many current applications.

    Like you, I’m not going to be the one to tell any non-white person not to use it.

    While I understand why you think it’s questionable for white people to use it, and I will not personally use it, I think we’re stuck evaluating the direction of punching on a case by case basis and calling out that *itself*, when applicable.

    Here’s why: it is really REALLY important to normalize white men, and women, calling out entitled racist appeals to authority. Karen is a shorthand for that, that is funny enough that it fills an important niche. There are other ways to achieve the same tone to call out the same problem, but they require a fair amount of cleverness or luck.

    • becca Says:

      P.S.
      Related specifically to your title:
      In undergrad, I lived in a 14 person vegetarian/vegan-friendly eco focused co-op. We had a Karen. Even Karens who do not believe in The Manager, because they are members of hippie co-ops, can attempt to convince everyone using consensus minus one decision making that the one black guy in the co-op is A Problem.

      I mean, in her defense, he DID bathe in Apple Cider Vinegar, but the white dude vegan was SO MUCH worse.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I mean, ideally we’d do that, but I think it’s easier to say white people can’t use the term than to say you can use it but only for its original intent. (Not that you can really tell white people they’re not allowed to do anything, but we *have* cut down on blackface and use of the n-word, so… the idea would be that when one of these Chads uses it incorrectly people don’t listen to it because they know white dudes aren’t supposed to use the term Karen.)

  6. xykademiqz Says:

    Anything that can be co-opted by patriarchy gets co-opted by patriarchy. The corollary is that anything that can serve misogyny is used to serve misogyny. The greatest speed in the universe isn’t the speed of light, but the speed at which any element of culture gets co-opted to push women down, because misogyny, sadly, cuts through the borders of race and culture much more efficiently than virtually any other social phenomenon.

    Btw, IIRC, Becky is a slur for a generic White woman (presumably one who annoys the speaker) used by women in the Black community (such as in Becky with the good hair).

    I know several Karens, about half of whom are not White; none of them are thrilled about Karening. Some have more of a sense of humor about it than others, but I suspect that will wear thin. One reported her teenage daughter had told her she was such a Karen when she tried to enforce some mildly irritating (to the teen) household rule.

  7. Debbie M Says:

    My favorite use/perversion of the term “Karen” was in a black guy’s video where he was explaining to white people how to be allies. He said use your Karen skills to fight for black people. (Talk to managers about racist behavior, etc.) When I watched that, I thought Karens were just self-centered (talking to managers, writing to CEOs, etc., about piddly things); I didn’t know it was about being racist.

    To answer your question, I agree with the others who’d like us to all just use specific English instead of slang.

    In other news, my sister Karen goes by Sunny, so no one knows her secret misery (or whatever).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sometimes talking to managers is a good thing that helps everybody! But I think this is more like, instead of talking to the manager about how you don’t want black people at your pool, talk to them about how you want things to be more inclusive (like making the entrance ADA accessible!).

  8. First Gen American Says:

    Hmmm…interesting. Here in the bluest And whitest part of MA, Karens aren’t racist. They are know it all bossy ladies. We have an actual lady named Karen who is very involved in PTO and she chooses to own the title. She is awesome and does stuff that no one else wants to do but needs to be done.

    I mainly hear HS kids using the term to describe the helicopter moms so I asked if I was one. My son told me I’m not a Karen because I did fun stuff at school like nitrogen explosions. However, fighting over what color pencil to use for a fund drive is Definitely a Karen thing to do. Creating drama over trivial things Is what she does.

    Best line in the comments:
    “Anything that can be co-opted by patriarchy gets co-opted by patriarchy“

  9. Omdg Says:

    My husband brought up this exact point earlier today, I will have to ask him if he reads your blog. ;-)

    Indeed I may have been guilty of misusing the term myself, in labeling other off-putting-to-me but non-racist behavior of a white woman (which is when my husband brought it up — and for the record I stopped myself, thought, and said f8ck you’re right). I hate it when I channel the patriarchy because I’m not thinking hard enough. Dammit how did my husband become a better feminist than I am.

    Thank you for raising this issue and helping spread awareness of the problem.

  10. Trix Says:

    Something I have been thinking lately is that instead of critiquing white women who call the police, we need to re-focus on why the police intervening is problematic. Plenty of people call the police (or the manager) for ridiculous and racist reasons. If the response by the police were to come in, mediate the argument and calm things down – it wouldn’t be an issue. Instead the response by the police is to escalate and threaten people’s lives.

    I say all of this partly because I feel a great pressure to never call the police if I feel threatened or concerned. It is VERY rare that I do even think of calling the police, but I worry that I might be more willing to risk my own life than risk appearing racist or threatening the other person’s life. I want to be able to call the police without fearing it could lead to someone’s murder on unjust arrest.

    I recently had to call the police bc the couple above me was being very violent and I was scared for them. I worried that calling the police (the NYPD, to be exact) could risk their lives. I have no idea who lives above me – so no clue as to their races/ethnicities – and so I was unsure how much of a risk to them my calling the police would be. I do know that domestic calls are among the riskiest for police themselves – and so it could cause heightened anxiety on their part, which could risk their escalating things to a horrific end. I contacted my landlord and he said he’d send the super up, but that seemed potentially dangerous. I called the police because I felt like the risk was too great to not do so. As it turned out, the police came and a woman police officer was the person who intervened. She was very calm and very warm (I stood in the stairwell and listened a bit bc I was so worried) and handled it very well.

    An instance when I didn’t call the police — I was getting off the subway and encountered a man being horribly abusive to a woman. I intervened and asked the woman if she needed help. I didn’t look at or talk to the man — I just asked her if she needed help. He then turned his vitriol on me and started following me and calling me names and I was terrified. I didn’t want to call the police bc he was black and I am white and I worried how things would end. I tried to get the transit workers to help and they refused. It all ended up ok (for me at least, I don’t know what happened to the woman), but I got home and broke down bc I was terrified. Had I called the police and had someone videotaped it, would I have been labeled a Karen and blasted all over the internet?

  11. Anita Says:

    I’m fairly sure this “co-opting” was a quite deliberate move in some parts. My brother sadly associates with a lot of these conservative and “men’s rights” groups, and the way he was talking about this made it sound like it was a coordinated campaign to subvert the term. Essentially it was a group of white men who didn’t want to be blamed for this sort of issue, so they just deliberately conspired to make it purely about women. If so, it’s a bit depressing how successful they were.
    The thing I find kind of sad, but interesting, is these guys seem to be motivated by the sense that they’re being oppressed and need to fight back. I heard him once say “feminists have all white men by the balls in the US”. He genuinely seems to believe that’s an accurate description of things! (I was tempted to say “No we don’t…….Not yet”)

  12. Matthew D Healy Says:

    An underappreciated aspect of the Karen meme is that it’s also ageist! A few years ago I got curious about first names because so many people I knew were giving their kids names that sounded like late Victorian novels. Being a data nerd, I made these plots using data from the Social Security Administration:

    Click to access FirstNameHeatmaps.pdf

    What I noticed was (1) indeed there are some first names that have come back into fashion after being rare for many decades, but (2) there are some other first names that peaked in the middle of the 20th Century, which I called “Mid Century Modern names.”

    Karen is a Mid Century Modern name.


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