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How a meme about 'Karen' has become part of the fight against racism

Karen has been used to refer to the type of woman who would summon a manager over a minor inconvenience.

The video of a white woman, dubbed the Central Park Karen, calling 911 on a black man after he requested she leash her dog went viral earlier this week.
The video of a white woman, dubbed the Central Park Karen, calling 911 on a black man after he requested she leash her dog went viral earlier this week.
Image: AP/PA Images

IF YOU’VE LOGGED into any social media platform at any point in the last few years then you’ve more than likely come across an iteration of the Karen meme.  

This week one might have appeared on your timeline following an incident in New York’s Central Park. 

Amy Cooper, a white woman, lost her job after a video showing her calling the police about an African-American birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park went viral. 

The clip, posted on Twitter and viewed millions of times, was filmed by the man, Christian Cooper, who said he had asked the woman to leash her dog.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Cooper while appearing to call the police. “There is an African-American man, I’m in Central Park. He’s recording me and threatening me and threatening my dog,” she then tells the operator.

The woman was quickly dubbed the Central Park Karen online, demonstrating how the once harmless moniker to depict the stereotype of a self-important middle-aged white woman has evolved into a takedown of social and racial privilege. 

Meme evolution 

In the original meme, ‘Karen’ was used to refer to the type of woman who would criticise retail workers, or summon a manager over a minor inconvenience.

While it is somewhat unclear when the Karen meme emerged, the online meme encyclopedia, Know Your Meme, has a few theories. 

According to the site, some believe that the popularity of the name spawned from the character Karen from the 1989 gangster film Goodfellas while others believe that usage of the name as a pejorative stem from a standup comedy routine by Dane Cook back in 2005 called The Friend That Nobody Likes. 

It was on Reddit in 2017 however that the joke really took off. The subreddit F*ckYouKaren is devoted to mocking the character with jokes and associating her with the ‘can I speak to the manager’ haircut. The haircut in question is a side-swept bob in the front with much shorter hair in the back, often spiky. 

The ‘speak to the manager haircut’ was a meme in its own right – first appearing in 2014 – before Karen swallowed the reference up.

Karen 2020

Now in 2020, Karen remains the internet’s number one villain, even in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic. 

Writing for The Atlantic earlier this month, Kaitlyn Tiffany said: “Karen has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest. It’s the latest evolution of a long-standing meme.”

The meme has been widely criticised for being tinged with sexism, given that not everyone who fits the self-entitled description is a middle-aged woman.

Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian that the Karen memes have become mired in sexism, claiming that a joke which was once a way of describing women’s behaviour “is now too often about controlling it”. 

Do I really need to spell out the sexism of a meme about a woman’s name that took off from a man griping about his ex-wife and has become a way of telling women to shut up? Yes, there are memes about Chad and Zach, but these have never gained the popularity of ones about Becky, Susan or Tammy, let alone Karen.

“When I see young (and not so young) white women defending the Karen meme, I’m reminded of the Cool Girl passage in Gone Girl: yeah, I’m not a basic pushy-mum-type woman – I’m a cool girl. Mmm, let’s see how long denigrating your own sex works for you, ladies.”

Source: ABC News/YouTube

In the latest iteration of Karen, people are using it to describe white women who instigate racist incidents.

What started off as a flippant meme has become a shorthand to brand the white women who call the police on black people just because they’re black.

As more people are using their phones to record these racist interactions in the US, examples are littered online – from the woman who called the police on a girl for selling water in San Francisco to the woman who called the police on a group of black people who were legally barbecuing at a public park in Oakland, California.

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The most recent incident in Central Park prompted outrage once it was posted on social media. The New York City mayor Bill de Blasio condemned the woman’s actions as “racism, plain and simple”. 

The woman later apologised during an interview with NBC but denied that she was racist, saying she had overreacted after feeling threatened.

Central Park Karen made headlines in the same week thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across the US stoked by the murder of a black man by police officers. 

Outrage has grown since the death of George Floyd on Monday, fuelled in part by video footage from a bystander which shows him handcuffed and in the custody of four white police officers.

In the video, Floyd goes limp while a police officer presses a knee into his neck.

Criminal charges filed on Friday morning against the white officer who held his knee for nearly nine minutes on the neck of Floyd did nothing to stem the anger. Derek Chauvin, 44, is charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

minneapolis-police-death-los-angeles-protest Source: Ringo H.W. Chiu

protest-in-memphis-after-death-of-george-floyd Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“These two storylines — the black man confronted by white fragility in Central Park and the black man confronted with police brutality in Minneapolis — will forever be in conversation with each other,” founding director of The Race Card Project, Michele L Norris wrote for the Washington Post.

Norris says the only way for real and lasting change to come about in the US is if police departments and the communities they serve to examine all the ways individuals purposely hold others down with decisions that propel some forward in life and keep others relegated to society’s lower rungs.

For now, the Karen meme is playing an important – though sometimes criticised – role in the discussion of racism online in 2020.

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About the author:

Adam Daly

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