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How Karen became a meme, and what real-life Karens think about it

by ace
How Karen became a meme, and what real-life Karens think about it

Karen Sun is a far cry from the "Karen" meme that has spread widely on social media in recent years.

In addition to a shared first name, Sun – a 23-year-old Chinese 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 get what she wants. want. "

But Sun, which has spent years working in the fast food industry, has found its fair share of "Karens".

And many do. A "Karen" is generally defined as a tantrum at Starbucks. Who asks to speak to the manager for the least inconvenience. Who uses tears to get what he wants. It’s also someone who calls the black police to, say, ask them leash your dog in Central Park.

The term has divided people. Some said is sexist. Others say it is a placeholder for talking about the casual racism and privilege exhibited by some white women.

But where do these terms come from and what do they represent? And what does that mean for people of color, people like Sun, who find themselves sharing a name with that stereotype?

HOW THE TERM "KAREN" BEGAN

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 symbolize a certain stereotype of whiteness. 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 comedian Dane Cook in 2005 used "Karen" as the target of a joke, as a placeholder for a friend that no one really liked.

Brock also referred to Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1992 hit song "Baby Got Back" as an example. The song's introduction begins with a reference to an unknown "Becky", insulting an unnamed black woman: "Oh, my God, Becky, look at your ass. It's so big. She looks like one of those" friends "rap guys.

And who could forget the iconic Beyoncé line "You better call Becky with the good hair" from her album "Lemonade" in 2016?

But the story goes back even further. Blacks, he said, also had names for white people who wanted to be in charge, but actually had no control over them.

Miss Ann is an example, from the time of slavery. It was a name that black slaves would use specifically to refer to white women who wanted to exercise power over them – power that they did not actually have, Brock said.

So although the names have now changed – we have largely replaced "Miss Ann" with "Becky" and "Karen" – the idea behind the names is still the same.

The pattern of using these basic names continued. In 2018, after a white woman called the police on a group of blacks barbecue in a public park, the term "BBQ Becky" was coined. In 2020, when Amy Cooper called the police to 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 you're looking at."

In other words? It is a desire by some white women to exercise control over blacks – as it was in the days of slaves, as in 1992 and exactly as it persists today, he said.

Names like Karen or Becky? It is an act of black resistance, said Brock. It gives behavior a name and acts as a way to get sympathy for an injustice, maybe laugh about it and get on with your day.

WHAT A "KAREN" SYMBOLIZES

For the term "Karen", part of its appeal is that the name exists, for the most part, in antiquity. And in that regard, it is a powerful nickname for someone decidedly out of reach.

Just look at the baby's name data at the Social Security Office. Between 1951 and 1968, the name "Karen" reached its peak – ranking among the top 10 most popular baby names in the United States.

But in 2018, the most recent year available, "Karen" ranked 635th among the most popular names, well below grace.

"Karen is a name that no one else would call her son," said Lisa Nakamura, director of the Institute of Digital Studies at the University of Michigan, bluntly.

Therefore, the use of a name like "Karen", explained Nakamura, is part of someone's location and actions in a regressive period.

The phenomenon is exhibited by the "BBQ Becky" incident in 2018, the viral video showing how a white woman called the police from a group of black people who were barbecueing in a public park, claiming they were breaking the law. At the beginning of the video, the woman asserts herself, but in the end, when the police arrive, she starts to cry, saying: "I am being harassed".

White women – "Karens" specifically – are able to muster sympathy for showing their fragility, Brock explained, taking the focus off that they did something wrong and would be called for.

"They are running away with behavior that no one else would do," he explained.

HOW KARENS FEEL ABOUT THE TERM

So, how do real people named Karen feel about this?

Sun told CNN that no one seriously called them "Karen". Of course it does, they said, and sometimes they use it as a joke. But they don't think this is an offense.

"There is no real systemic oppression there," they said. "It will not prevent you from getting married or receiving medical care, you are just acting fair and rude and that is why you are being called 'Karen'."

Still, Sun noted that Karen's name had some impact on the way they navigate the world, at least on the way they choose when to speak.

Karen Shim, 23, based in Philadelphia, had a similar feeling.

Although she knows that memes or comments are not specifically aimed at her, she said it can still seem a little personal – even if it is by her name.

Now, Shim said that she may feel less comfortable speaking in certain situations, afraid that someone might, even as a joke, mock her "Karen" attitude.

But Shim, who is Korean and Chinese, also said that her name is not the first thing people are likely to judge her – that would be her race, she said.

Sun agreed.

"There is already a way to move around the world, as someone who is weird and not white," they said. "Even with the name association, it adds another layer, but I'm not necessarily defined by that layer."

Karen Chen, 20, based in North Carolina, told CNN that while associating her name with the stereotype makes her a little uncomfortable, she said she is fine with its use.

"I know it is obviously just a name, and it is by no means representative of me and how people think I am," she said.

More than her name, what really bothers Chen are the implications of a "Karen's" actions and how the use of her privileges can cost marginalized groups.

Brock, although notably not called Karen, summed up the following: "If you are offended by an archetype, it says more about your insecurities as liberal allies than about 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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