Sep 17, 2020

What Does It Mean To Be A “Karen” And Where Did This Come From?

Kristin Kerr

et’s just jump to the point on this one. What on earth are people referring to when they reference a “Karen”? Well, in recent months, the term “Karen” has completely blown up, and no, this name wasn’t chosen at random. A "Karen" is basically defined as someone who throws a tantrum at a Starbucks. Someone who asks to speak to the manager over a tiny inconvenience. Someone who uses tears to get what she wants. Or someone who calls the police on another person for, say, asking that she leash her dog in Central Park. And yes, these are all true scenarios.

Can I Speak With A Manager?

Karen memes have been a popular topic on the Internet for quite some time now. As more information has been gathered about the topic, the name “Karen” has over time become an umbrella term used to represent entitled white women who use their privilege to demand special treatment and complain about minuscule matters. The most widely-recognized “Karen” comes to mind when people hear the phrase “Can I speak with a manager?” You’re living under a rock if you’ve never seen one of these memes. 


Coronavirus Karen (Yes It’s A Thing)

Coronavirus has brought a new meaning to many things. It’s no surprise that “Karen” also has a new resonance since the pandemic began. Following the beginning of Coronavirus, videos have gone viral on social media of people refusing to wear face coverings in public areas, often berating service staff. Aggressively protesting against social distancing measures or refusing to wear a face mask to protect others from the virus has been seen as a new iteration of the typical entitled “Karen”. 

Halloween is just around the corner and it’s no surprise that “Karen” is on the 2020 costume list. Some “Karens” may refuse to wear a mask during Covid-19, but that’s not stopping other people from wearing a “Karen” mask this Halloween, thanks to Jason Adcock's homemade Karen mask. To keep up with all the memes, the mask is complete with bloodshot eyes, an enraged expression and the infamous short, layered “can I speak with a manager” haircut. #KarensGoneWild


Why Karen?

It was noted earlier that the name Karen wasn’t chosen at random. André Brock, a professor at Georgia Tech, studies race and the internet, and has also done significant research on Black Twitter. He found that black folks have had names for white people who wanted to be in charge but didn't actually have any control over them for quite some time now. 

Remember Sir Mix-A-Lot's hit song from 1992, "Baby Got Back"? Okay, you might not remember the title of the song, but you’ve got to remember the famous intro and reference to an unknown “Becky”, insulting an unnamed Black woman.

"Oh, my God, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends."

Fast forward to Beyonce's 2016 album “Lemonade” and the term is still being thrown around. Remember her line "You better call Becky with the good hair"

Brock says that Black folks have had names for white people who wanted to be in charge but didn't actually have any control over them. Miss Ann is one example, from the time of slavery. It was a name Black slaves would use specifically to refer to white women who wanted to exert power over them - power that they didn't actually have, Brock said.

Problems with the term

With '"Karen" becoming a rapidly used word to describe a typical sort of person and behaviour the term seems to be one that has met widely adopted acception in today's culture. As a function of language we are always adding or re-using words and assigning them new meaning to describe something we can all relate to, after all, that's how words themselves gain meaning.

For a long while before the world coined this term, the type of individual it describes are often opinionated, entitled, self-centred, and confrontational. There are a number of existing alternatives to this term that are certainly more aggressive but Karen seems to capture a very specific kind of person.

The problem with language that slices the pie of humanity into smaller and smaller pieces is that while this particular term is accepted by society, there are other terms being created at the same time that hurt overall society. While in most cases the "Karen's" we see seem to have certainly earned the title we forget that when we use a word to describe a person as anything other than a person, we are treading in potentially dangerous territory. While the term "Karen" and the term "racist" have significantly different implications the mechanism used to describe both parties is the same. This is obviously an extreme comparison but illustrates a point.

"Ok Boomer" is yet another term that has emerged that illustrates how one simple term can effectively negate the wisdom and perspective of other people without taking into consideration their experiences or knowledge. While sometimes this term can be seen as being used in a correct way, it shows the power of words and the effect it has on splitting society and groups of people.

There are of course similar terms that are emerging that are starting to describe males who behave similar to that of the "Karens" but have yet to commit to a single name. Are we heading towards a world where people are categorized by their negative behaviour and labeled accordingly? Are we moving further away from intelligent debate? Only time will tell.

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