Sometimes they approach with a smile. Other times, it’s with the rage of angels.
It’s been nearly a year since Amy Cooper — upset that she had been asked to leash her dog in the Ramble — called 911 on bird-watcher Christian Cooper in Central Park, falsely alleging that her life was in danger.
But such “Karen” incidents have not gone away. If anything, they have become a depressingly regular occurrence. So regular and unsurprising, in fact, that many of these videos no longer go viral.
In the latest such case earlier this week, a 77-year-old woman, a resident of a retirement community in Wildwood, Fla., was charged with launching a racial tirade against a worker at a Burger King
restaurant after she reportedly became angry over the thickness of the tomato in her bun. She also allegedly hurled the Whopper at the employee.
And last month, Huang Zhu and Ying Huang, immigrants from China living in San Jose, released a video of a man banging on their front door, yelling racial slurs, and screaming, “You brought COVID-19.” The couple said the man scared their 6-year-old twins, and knocked on their door at least 100 times. The man hollered: “I said it’s your neighbor, open the door! …Communist China!”
An immigrant couple from China released a video in April of a man banging on their front door, yelling racial slurs, and screaming, ‘You brought COVID-19.’
In a heartbreaking detail from that night, one of the couple’s children reportedly asked his mother: “Mommy, did I do this because I watch too much iPad and he’s here to punish me?”
Terence Fitzgerald has lived with Karen-esque micro-aggressions his whole life, and now he sees his own young sons come face to face with them too. Last year, when his sons were 5 and 3 years old, he was on a weekend bike ride in his neighborhood, a quiet suburb in Southern California with picturesque houses situated amid generous lawns.
“My oldest loves nature and stopped,” Fitzgerald said. “It forced us all to hit the brakes because he was leading us on our little adventure. He saw a cardinal and wanted to show me. The bird sat on a branch on the edge of someone’s property.”
It was one of those occasions a parent remembers: an ordinary moment when he and his family got to escape the rat race, the pandemic, pause and take a breath to enjoy the simple gifts of nature and fleeting childhood. Blink and that 5-year-old will be 15. Blink again, he’ll be 25.
Alas, Fitzgerald remembers that day for another reason. “All of a sudden, a truck stopped. A white woman rolled down her window and said, ‘What’s going on here? What are you looking at?’ I felt this surge of anger rise within me,” he recalled.
Fitzgerald, a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California and the author of “Black Males and Racism: Improving the Schooling and Life Chances of African Americans,” said he was ready to use a tone of voice his children had never heard before. “But I looked at my boys and realized that I am their role model and knew I had to control myself,” he says.
‘All of a sudden a truck stopped. A white woman rolled down her window, and said, “What’s going on here? What are you looking at?”’
— Terence Fitzgerald, who had stopped to observe a cardinal in a tree while cycling with his 5- and 3-year-old sons
“I simply said in the smartest-ass way possible, ‘A bird.’ I gave them the death stare and the husband said, ‘Well, all right then,’ as if he was giving me permission to continue on my day,” Fitzgerald recalls. “He rolled up their window and drove on.” He reminded himself that, in the face of such an intrusion, “This neighborhood is my neighborhood.”
For a moment, he wondered if he had made the wrong decision in moving there. “There are maybe two other families of color here,” Fitzgerald said. “I told my wife we should have never moved into a development with ‘Plantation’ in the name.”
This is an all-too-familiar story of a white person “policing” Black neighbors. “Karens” and “Kens” have been filmed on smartphones challenging people of color with increasing regularity: “You’re not allowed to sell lemonade on this street!” Or, “This is a community pool for locals only. Do you have a pass?” Or even: “Why are you in this building? Do you live here?”
In an era when the racist practice of “redlining” white neighborhoods by financial institutions and real-estate agencies to keep people of color out has been mostly, if not totally, abandoned in U.S. society, such incidents serve as a reminder that white people are not always welcoming to their Black neighbors, whether they white neighbors in question would agree with that or not.
“Redlining” housing policies have not been completely erased from neighborhood maps. The term refers to how the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drew up color-coded maps that designated how risky it was for lenders to originate mortgages in different neighborhoods across the country.
It was a common practice in the first half of the 20th Century, but it was outlawed through legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet many of America’s largest cities, particularly in the northern part of the U.S., remain heavily segregated by race or ethnicity. The practice continues to this day, and housing in many redlined areas is still worth significantly less than similar homes in a nonredlined neighborhood.
Karen (or Ken) videos shed light on racism and ongoing harassment of people of color by white people, sometimes even their neighbors, and this “othering” of people of color is another surreptitious way of attempting to maintain a predominantly white socio-economic power structure, and effectively erecting an invisible white picket fence around their own neighborhoods.
These incidents, others say, merely reveal a more explicit form or racism that permeates neighborhoods, workplaces, colleges and businesses across America. They see it as a generational transfer of white economic power that can express itself as an unfriendly neighborhood committee or a boss that overlooks a person of color for promotion.
Meanwhile, some white feminists argue that the Karen video meme has gone too far, smacks of misogyny and aggressively shames women, rather than men, who may be having a bad day, or suffering from other emotional problems. Others say the Karen narrative trivializes the anger and economic disenfranchisement of a white working class that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.
Research, however, does suggest that Black people are either mistreated or, at the very least, treated differently based on their race more than white people. Some 65% of Black adults say they’ve been in situations where people acted suspicious of them, compared to just 25% of white adults, according to the Pew Research Center.
Karen videos — whether crude or fascinating, alarming or trivial — can be roughly split into two groups: White people who confront and question people of color, and white people who show antipathy or rage toward authority — retail and restaurant workers who ask them to abide by social-distancing rules and wear face masks, for example — or ask to see the manager.
The phenomenon has been around in one form or another for years, but truly went global after the now-infamous standoff in Central Park.
Amy Cooper, dubbed “Central Park Karen,” called the cops on May 25, 2020 after a bird watcher, Christian Cooper, who is no relation, asked her to put her dog on a leash in New York’s Central Park. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she said on a video recording Cooper made on his smartphone. They both left the rambles in the park before the police arrived.
Timing, perhaps, is everything. This happened on the same day that George Floyd, who was Black, died in police custody after a white Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck with the full weight of his body for nearly nine minute, sparking nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
The incident in Central Park happened on the same day that George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.
Ciminal charges against Amy Cooper were dropped without a guilty plea in February after she completed a therapeutic program that included lessons on racial biases. The prosecutor in the case, Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, said that Cooper had “learned a lot” from the 911 call that was heard around the world. The video has been viewed on Twitter over 45 million times.
The Amy Cooper video may have been unpleasant to watch, but it was not something seen as unfamiliar to many Black men. “I was mortified by the Amy Cooper incident, but struck by a bit of recognition when you have a white person who perceives you to have less rights than they, and they to have more rights than you,” said Rich Benjamin, author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.”
“Whether it’s your skin color or the place, they reserve the right to police you and police your presence, and that implies that it’s a white space, and the condition for you being there is their comfort,” he said. “This is prevalent and more common than everyone suspects. It’s not surprising. It’s not new. It’s not rare. The only difference is that this was caught on an iPhone.”
Benjamin traveled nearly 30,000 miles around the U.S.m and spent time in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Forsythe County, Ga.; and St. George, Utah — the areas with the country’s fastest-growing white populations. “I wanted to see why white flight was happening, and how and why white conservatism was developing.”
They were different in some ways: Georgia was more Baptist than Idaho or Utah, for example, and Utah was more Mormon than Idaho or Georgia. “As the country gets more demographically diverse, all kinds of fears on political issues like taxes, so-called national security, public-school funding and immigration are fueled by this fear of white decline,” Benjamin said.
During his travels, from 2007 to 2009, he attended a three-day white separatist retreat with links to Aryan Nations in northern Idaho and in exurban megachurches in the South. “Call these places White Meccas,” he writes in the book. “Or White Wonderlands. Or Caucasian Arcadias. Or Blanched Bunker Communities. Or White Archipelagos. I call them Whitopia.”
These viral videos of Karens asking people of color to explain themselves are the rust on the barbed wire atop the walls separating some White Americans from people of color.
Karens are the neighborhood busybody who has a problem with the same neighbors, who just happen to Black: Last summer, Fareed Nassor Hayat and Norrinda Brown Hayat’s neighbor in Montclair, N.J., called the police demanding to see a permit because Hayat and her husband were building a patio in their backyard.
“This isn’t just an argument between neighbors when she’s using the power of the state. She’s calling on the power of the state to say, ‘Hey, I can have a knee on your neck if you don’t submit to me,’” Fareed Hayat told the media after the incident. Several white neighbors came to the couple’s defense, and the next day there was a protest in the neighborhood in support of the Hayats.
Some harassment runs the gamut from legal residency and ethnicity to sexuality. Earlier this month, this woman harassed a Latino gardener in California and, when he asked her to step back because she is not wearing a mask, she repeatedly said, “Can you show me your papers?” She called him “Mariposa,” Spanish slang for homosexual. He told her, “I’m Mexican! I’m Filipino! I’m Chinese! You’re funny. You made my day.”
The other group of Karens and Kens featured in these viral videos direct their anger more broadly, and become upset in public places when the rules don’t bend to their will. Such cases may also raise larger issues about mental health, substance abuse and/or stress as a result of the pandemic, and be the result of their own frustrations and anxieties in a country that has left a large swathe of white rural America behind.
“Despite the importance of rural communities to the health of the nation overall, federal policy has left many rural communities behind,” according to a report last year by the Center for American Progress, a progressive nonpartisan policy institute. “Though some are thriving, rural areas overall have yet to match the employment levels reached prior to the 2008 recession, and deep poverty persists in many rural communities.”
Some people in these videos charge store staff at the entrance, cough on patrons, or throw their baskets on the floor or groceries out of their cart. In one particularly bizarre case that could be attributed to stubbornness or something more serious, “Costco Karen”
sat on the floor of a Costco in Hillsboro, Ore., after declining to wear a mask.
“I’m an American. I have constitutional rights,” she said. After requesting to speak to the manager, she sat on the floor. A staff member politely asked her if she would like a chair.
She cut a sad figure, one of pathos rather than someone who wanted to do anyone harm (aside from the very real risk of transmitting COVID-19, that is). In a world where so much is not within our control, this was a defiant — certainly misguided — act in which she tried to wrestle some control over her own life.
It is particularly poignant in a world where so much appears to be outside of our control — the coronavirus pandemic, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas, closure of small, family-run businesses due to retail behemoths such as Walmart
both of which have seen their fortunes improve during the pandemic.
But such theories may seem overly generous. White women also call other white women “Karen” and they are just as likely to be privileged as not. Take this recent trip to a hairdressers on Madison Avenue, as recounted by Gail, who asked to have her last name withheld. As she was paying her bill, Gail stood at the cash register next to a woman and her dog, who had been running around the salon without a leash. (The salon had a “No Dogs” sign outside.)
When asked to use her credit card, the woman refused to put it into the machine herself. “I couldn’t possibly do that! I have four assistants,” she said, according to Gail’s account. “My assistants do that for me.” The woman also complained about having to practice social distancing and wear a mask. But Gail seemed excited to tell the story. “Is she a Karen? I think I met a Karen!”
Racial animosity and economic disenfranchisement
Can police officers be Karens and Kens too? While white women have been filmed for vehemently refusing to wear masks during the pandemic, Black men have even been targeted in stores for wearing them. A year ago, Kam Buckner, a member of the Illinois state legislature, was stopped by police after leaving a store while wearing a mask.
Buckner told a local news station: When it was clear he had bought the items in his possession, the uniformed officer in question told him, “People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.”
It was ironic, given the resistance among some white people to wearing face coverings. “I have been programmed to show as much of my face as possible and use certain cues to disarm anyone who might have a learned inclination to be suspicious of my very presence,” Buckner said.
‘People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.’
— Kam Buckner, a member of the state legislature in Illinois, recounting what a police officer reportedly told him when he walked out of a store wearing a face mask
“It is an indictment on the whole of society for creating a climate where this is normal and this is OK,” he added. “I can’t help but think of the dangers that are inherent for a number of Black men who are just adhering to the mask rule and, by doing so, look like they are ‘up to something.’”
All of this is taking place against a deeply polarized political climate, amid the reverberations of the racially charged presidency of Donald Trump, who repeatedly called COVID-19 the “China virus” and said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 protests over Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Va. that included neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
In a paper published in the Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Chan Tov McNamarah documented a “legion” of white people calling the police on Black people “engaged in mundane activities” during the summer of 2018.
The article, “White Caller Crime: Racialized Police Communication and Existing While Black,” chronicles a litany of such instances ranging from sitting in Starbucks
and playing golf to eating in university classrooms.
But explaining why a Karen or Ken questions Black people who are simply trying to go about their day is an attempt to rationalize the irrational, said Linda Clemons, the CEO of Sisterpreneur, an organization aimed at empowering female entrepreneurs.
“Children are not born that way,” she said. “It doesn’t come from their core being. It comes from someone who is racist or biased.”
Clemons says she tells white-women friends to use their voices to speak up against Karens, Kens and white supremacy: “Use your white privilege to form a human barrier.” This, she argues, will help Black children in school who get overlooked and/or targeted by teachers, as well as help create more diverse workplaces.
These divisions go back generations, Clemons adds: “They are coming out of the woodwork. They were already there.” Why, she asks, can’t white and Black workers stand side by side, and fight for the same rights for better pay and working conditions?
There is a history of such action in America. Black and white farm workers fought side-by-side for better working conditions and pay in the 1930s, with the help of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, a federation of tenant farmers, to push for reform of the rights, and the working conditions and pay of sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
“Women played a critical role in its organization and administration,” according to the Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
But politics and government policies got in the way. Laws and practices in the former Confederate states — such as poll taxes, literacy tests and “grandfather clauses” — were introduced to prevent Black people from voting, creating a two-tiered system among the Black and white workers.
Clemons sees the current social climate in the broader historical context of Black workers being scapegoated for white Americans’ economic ills and personal misfortunes, after being exploited as free labor for generations. “The White House was built off the labor of slavery and on Native Americans’ stolen land,” she said.
White allies have always been there too — perhaps not in the numbers seen so publicly since the civil-rights protests of 1968, Clemons said. But the most recent Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other unarmed Black people at the hands of police have galvanized a new generation of white allies, she added.
‘White people feel safer acting antisocially in public’
In the 21st-Century U.S., a different set of economic and social fissures have emerged. President Trump has long identified his white, blue-collar base as “the forgotten people,” those who feel they’ve been left behind. Globalization and technological advancement have hit manufacturing jobs in many of the pivotal states won by Trump in 2016.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Trump said in his election-night victory speech. The president-elect may have been paying uncredited homage to a 1932 speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that vowed help for “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
Given the resentments aired in Karen and Ken videos, they appear to be divided along political lines. FDR’s New Deal in 1933 provided federal support to African-Americans and, by the mid-1930s, most had cut historical ties with Republican Party.
Furloughs, layoffs, the stress of lockdowns and re-emergence of Black Lives Matter has left many Karens and Kens feeling insecure and threatened.
Facing discriminatory labor laws and practices, they threw their support behind Roosevelt and joined with labor unions, farmers and progressives. FDR’s 1936 reelection in a landslide shifted the balance of power in the Democratic Party from its Southern bloc of white conservatives to a more diverse field.
The most recent spate of videos featuring white people confronting Black people for the most innocuous reasons — and seeing red when they’re asked to socially distance by a store employee — comes at another polarizing time in American life, as Black Lives Matter protests sweep the country.
Lillian Glass, a Los Angeles-based communications and body-language expert and author of “Toxic People: 10 Ways of Dealing With People Who Make Your Life Miserable,” says the rage displayed in these videos is displaced, and likely originates with a combination of multiple other personal and financial problems.
Furloughs, layoffs, the stress of lockdowns and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has left many Karens and Kens feeling insecure and threatened, Glass observes. “It’s like the perfect storm,” she said.
Fitzgerald, the USC social-work professor, contends fear fuels their fire: “People who have historically lived in a place of privilege and safety are being told a couple of jarring things that have shaken them to their core,” he said. “They are not safe. There is a new social-justice power pushing them to look in the mirror.”
“They are being told that the supposed fake media and the misguided liberals are to blame for the current state of social and economic turmoil,” he adds. “These in fact are the same people, along with people of color, who are challenging their long-held beliefs of white superiority.”
To Aram Sinnreich, an associate professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C., “the more interesting dimension of this is the question of who is getting angry about masks.” Or put another way: Why are these people refusing to abide by store rules nearly always white?
“Let’s assume that almost everyone is feeling an unusual level of anxiety with a pandemic, record unemployment, political and social instability, and climate change,” Sinnreich said. “Why do some people feel empowered and entitled to act on this anxiety by publicly defying mask-wearing regulations?”
“White people in this country are less accustomed than people of color to having their public behavior subject to regulation, scrutiny and critique,” Sinnreich added. “That’s the purpose of whiteness, after all. So the enforcement of rules like this may come as more of a shock.”
It’s easier for some Americans than others to let loose, and break mandatory mask rules, he said. “White people feel safer acting antisocially in public because there is less of a pervasive threat of injury or death as a result, he said, whereas “a Black person can get killed for jogging or for opening their front door.”
The cultural history behind the name ‘Karen’
The Karen phenomenon, meanwhile, has jumped from the social-media peanut gallery to the halls of power. In October, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pass the Caution Against Racially and Exploitative Non-Emergencies (CAREN) Act to make fabricated, racially-biased emergency calls to 911 illegal.
Supervisor Shamann Walton, who proposed the order in July and who is Black, told the press: “We don’t want what happened to Emmett Till in 1955, or the long history of false accusations of Black men and boys in this country, due to weaponizing law enforcement, to threaten, terrorize, and sometimes even kill them, to ever happen again.”
You may wonder why these videos’ subjects are called Karen. The name’s popularity peaked in the mid-1960s, and given the demographics of the U.S. 60 years ago, one theory is that people named Karen are now mostly middle-aged and white.
The apparent genesis of the name’s pejoration was a low-key and, likely, sexist viral post some years back joking that there’s no such thing as a youthful Karen — that Karens arrive on the scene fully formed, grasping onto anti-vax conspiracy theories and usually demanding to see the manager.
There is some agreement that the name Karen is associated with white women. Karen Attiah wrote in the Washington Post that, as a kid in South Dallas in the 1990s, she introduced herself to other Black kids at the mall. “One of them raised an eyebrow and looked puzzled when I told him my name. ‘You don’t look like a Karen,’ he said. ‘That’s a white lady’s name.’”
‘White people in this country are less accustomed than people of color to having their public behavior subject to regulation, scrutiny, and critique.’
— Aram Sinnreich, an associate professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C.
“My mother, who grew up in Nigeria, named me Karen precisely because she wanted me to blend into white American society and face fewer problems in life than I would have with a foreign or a ‘black-sounding’ name,” Attiah wrote. “Being a Karen has probably given me some advantages.”
This is not the first time white people, possibly arrogant white people, have been given such sobriquets. In the 19th Century, African Americans called condescending white men and women, as well as slave owners and their wives, Mister Charlies and Miss Anns. It was a covert and safer way of discussing their behavior.
In fact, James Baldwin wrote a 1964 play titled “Blues for Mister Charlie.” It was loosely based on the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of offending a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in her parents’ grocery store. Bryant recanted that accusation decades after Till’s murder.
Even some white suffragettes have been identified as having Karen-esque tendencies. “In America, both the women’s-rights movement and the black-rights movement had their roots in the abolitionist organizations of the early 1800s, and they shared many members, goals and methods,” according to “On Account of Color and Sex,” a extensive analysis of that period by historian Whitney Sampson.
That all changed. “By the late 1860s, the leaders of the two movements disagreed completely on the relationship between their movement and the existing political structure, particularly the Republican Party,” she added. “They also held divergent opinions on why other women or Black people need to vote, and when enfranchisement should occur.”
Anna Howard Shaw, a white suffragette, turned her back on her Black compatriots in the movement. “You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women,” Howard Shaw said. “Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses.”
In recent times, other names have been used to refer to such individuals, mostly to allow for alliteration — #PermitPatti, who refused to accept that a Black family was allowed into a neighborhood pool, and #BBQBecky, who called the police on a Black family having a barbecue.
Pop culture has made some names stick: Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” in 1992 featured a “Becky” who sounded like a stereotypical Valley Girl, while “Karen” surfaced in Dane Cook’s 2005 stand-up routine “The Friend Nobody Likes.“ “Every group has a Karen …” Cook said. (To be fair to Cook, he also said his friend group had such a person named Brian.)
Whether they’re called Karen and Ken or Becky and Brian, social commentators say the names provide a handle on behaviors born of entitlement, privilege or disenfranchisement and/or rage. In other words, such run-ins with Karens and Kens are not always — explicitly, at least — related to race.
Men, misogyny and mental health
Karens and Kens are, one might assume, equally angry with their perception of the state of the world. But while videos of people losing their cool in stores and on airplanes feature both men and women, Karens make the news more often than Kens. People also appear to choose to film and/or share Karens on Twitter, Facebook
These videos are disturbing and chilling, but also mesmerizing and fascinating — they can rack up tens of millions of views online. Fitzgerald says the virality of Karen videos ignores the reality that people of color deal with being policed by white women and men, and are effectively told they’re occupying what they regard as their space. “As people of color, we have equal negative experiences with both,” he said.
So why do videos of Karens get more clicks than those featuring men? Because these scenes take place in clothing stores and supermarkets, places where women still go more than men? Is it connected to the toxic myth of female hysteria that still permeates society, whether at the workplace or the doctor’s office? Or is it a twisted fascination with seeing women “misbehave” in the context of “good girl” and “ladylike” patriarchal stereotypes?
Karens, arguably, are no angrier than their male counterparts. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we see their anger more than Kens because people choose to film and/or share them.
Meghan Murphy, the founder and editor of the Feminist Current magazine, wrote in a recent edition that Karen memes and videos have “officially gone too far.” She wrote: “This connects to sexist tropes that claim women use their emotions, vulnerability, and tears to manipulate men.”
“‘Becky,’ which originated as a means to refer to basic white women — the Uggs-wearing, Starbucks-buying, pumpkin spice-loving kind — [is] probably young, probably blonde, probably not working class,” Murphy wrote. “Like ‘Karen,’ I never found this to be particularly offensive, as I had little desire to defend boring people who love Starbucks, but what was once a joke has become something much more egregious.”
She cites, as one of many examples, a male driver who identified a woman he described as a “Karen” and “then followed her home and filmed her as she melted down into hysterics, posting the video online.” Her “crime”? She flipped him off. The man who filmed the video, who is Black and gay and in his 20s, describes himself on his own website as “more than a viral video star.”
The man included her license plate in his video. It has been viewed more than 11 million times, and he is now selling T-shirts online based on the incident.
It makes for uncomfortable viewing. The woman tells him to leave her alone. She cowers at the back of her car, attempting to hide her license plate. She screams about what is perhaps now regarded as the ultimate way to bring instant infamy to a white woman who makes a mistake or loses her cool in public: “He wants to call me a Karen and put me online!”
In a statement, Twitter said it doesn’t consider car license plates to be private information under its private-information policy and, while the apartment complex is visible in that video, there isn’t a visible address, so it’s not something it would take enforcement action on. The company declined to comment on the alleged harassment of this woman in the video.
Many such videos lack context, and we often don’t get to see what happened immediately before the video started, Murphy said. “We all know social media leaves little room for nuance, and far too many people enjoy a rage reaction over asking questions or considering they may not know the full story,” she said. “The truth is that, today, people’s lives can be destroyed in an instant, via a viral post. And our culture is wielding that power with very little care.”
‘This dual oppressor/oppressed identity often becomes a root of tension when white women are challenged to consider their white privilege by women of color.’
— Mamta Motwani Accapadi, who works in higher-education administration, writing in her study, ‘When White Women Cry’
Some who see the Karen and Ken videos and memes as necessary and revealing do acknowledge the sexist element of focusing on white women over white men. “We live in a sexist society, so of course any kind of public shaming will have a gendered element,” Sinnreich said.
Men and women express violence differently, he added. “Men may be more likely to start a physical altercation, to engage in domestic abuse or to vandalize property. It may be that calling the perpetrators of these incidents by the gendered term Karen is a tacit acknowledgment that the form of ‘acting out’ they are engaging in is one that is more frequently designated as an appropriate or expected form of anti-sociality for women.”
“The locale may be part of that,” Sinnreich added, “but so may be the nature of the acting out, such as disrupting normal business processes (checkout lines) and delegating violence by proxy to institutions (calling the cops on a bird-watcher who asks you to leash your dog).”
In her seminal article, “When White Women Cry,” semantics scholar Mamta Motwani Accapadi examined the complex relationship to social justice and diversity between white and Black women. She examined awkward moments between Black and white women at workplaces and educational institutions.
What she found: “This dual oppressor/oppressed identity often becomes a root of tension when white women are challenged to consider their white privilege by women of color.” That is to say, such conversations between white and Black colleagues about race don’t always go so well.
She cited a case study involving “Anita,” a woman of color, who raised a concern about the lack of support offered to her community from an office where “Susan” worked. Susan began to cry and said she “felt attacked.” Anita reassured Susan that her comments were not directed at her personally. Instead of discussing the issue of support or lack of diversity programs, the group spent its time consoling Susan. Susan later reported Anita to both of their respective managers.
Stephanie Younger, an 18-year-old activist, says the Karen phenomenon is not misogynistic or sexist. In her essay for the Black Feminist Collective, “The Backlash Against ‘Karen’ Memes Is Peak White Feminism,” she wrote, “While white women have the privilege of being called a ‘Karen’ for enforcing oppression against marginalized people, Black women and girls are labeled as ‘angry’” because of their race.
‘Mental illness has been really something that has not been addressed as a result of this pandemic because what happened to me was scary and it changed my life forever.’
— Melissa Rein Lively, the woman who filmed herself tearing down a mask display at a Target, says she regrets the incident
“White women, before you get defensive when we hold you accountable for weaponizing your privilege,” Younger wrote, “remember that Black girls are the ones who are being erased and marginalized.”
The stress and fear of COVID-19 can take their toll. But for every racist encounter, there are other social-media incidents where people act out in public that may have their roots in more complex issues.
Melissa Rein Lively, the woman who filmed herself tearing down a mask display last July at a Target
in Scottsdale, Ariz. and posted it on her own social media, says she spent a week in a mental-health facility after the incident, and is using the public meltdown as a warning to others to seek help for mental health conditions, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I want to deeply apologize for my words and actions that took place earlier this month,” she wrote on Facebook
shortly after the incident went viral. “For the first time ever, I have accepted that I am completely powerless over this condition and have accepted the medical help and professional intervention that is needed to establish mental and physical stability for myself and my family.”
“For the last several weeks, I have been working with several doctors to try to piece together what happened and why, and I have learned there are several serious underlying conditions that were untreated and triggered an episode due to extreme stress by the pandemic and everything else going on,” she said.
Rein Lively, the chief executive and founder of a public-relations firm, added, “I will be entering an intensive treatment program to address these health concerns from a mental, physical and spiritual level. I am deeply committed to repairing my marriage, family and personal and professional relationships and pursuing treatment is the first step.” The video has been viewed on Twitter
over 10 million times.
The very public meltdown led some people online to dub her “Arizona Karen,” but it’s also a reminder that mental-health issues are sometimes caught up in the mix, too.
“Pandemics can be stressful,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says. The CDC says fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, your financial situation or job, or loss of support services you rely on, can all adversely impact your mental health. A recent Census Bureau survey found a surge in depression-related mood disorders during the pandemic.
Health authorities are concerned about the impact of the pandemic and job losses on people’s mental health, and some say it could lead to tragic outcomes. The growing epidemic of “deaths of despair” in the U.S. is also increasing due to the pandemic — and another 75,000 more people will likely die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide, according to recent research.
“We can prevent these deaths by taking meaningful and comprehensive action,” it said. “More Americans could lose their lives to deaths of despair, deaths due to drug, alcohol, and suicide, if we do not do something immediately. Deaths of despair have been on the rise for the last decade, and in the context of COVID-19, deaths of despair should be seen as the epidemic within the pandemic.”
‘A problem which is not named cannot be solved’
But the race-based incidents that have gone viral allow other white people to see what it looks like when racism and white privilege run wilds, which is an every day experience for most people of color, social commentators say.
On the one hand, it makes most folks feel better about themselves — “Thank God I’m not like that!” or, worse, “Thank God I’m not that bad!” — and laugh at the absurdity of people trying to assert their own perceived power in a very public setting.
But the most ingrained kinds of racism and white supremacy are neither amusing, nor so obvious, and permeate every aspect of culture and society — from hundreds of years of ingrained economic inequality to the most pernicious social interactions.
Both white and minority communities are struggling with coronavirus-induced job loss and concerns of getting sick, but people of color frequently experience discrimination in jobs, health care and housing, the kind of systemic racism not so easily captured in a four-minute video. Indeed, some encounters with Karens and Kens can be less public displays of emotion and more cat-and-mouse.
Lisa Alexander, the CEO of LaFace Skincare and now known as “San Francisco Karen,” and her partner, Robert Larkins, walked up to a neighbor James Juanillo last June. They were not happy. Juanillo, who describes himself as a “proud Filipino,” was writing “Black Lives Matter” in yellow chalk on a gray retaining wall in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco. With a veneer of chilly politeness, they told him that he was breaking the law.
‘Women are judged for being emotional. We’re considered to be difficult when we get angry, whereas men are perceived as being tough and powerful.’
— Denise Dudley, author and workplace consultant
Alexander asked. “Hi, is this your property? I’m asking you if this is your property.” When Juanillo suggested that they didn’t know who lived there, Alexander raised her index finger to her chin apologetically, and said, “We actually do know. That’s why we’re asking. Because we know the person who does live here.”
There was one not-insignificant problem: Alexander was lying. Juanillo had lived in the property since 2002, and decided to let the absurd and cringeworthy scenario play out.
It was not clear why Alexander or Larkins assumed he did not own the property, nor why they would pretend that they were friends with the owner.
But one theory as to why Alexander and Larkins approached Juanillo is that in a predominantly white, wealthy neighborhood like Pacific Heights — where the median-priced home is valued at $2 million, according to Zillow
— they incorrectly assumed that he did not live there. Feeling secure in that assumption, they felt confident enough to lie and say they did know who lived in Juanillo’s large home.
Alexander released a statement after Juanillo’s video went viral on Twitter
where it was viewed more than 23 million times. “I want to apologize directly to Mr. Juanillo,” she wrote. “There are not enough words to describe how truly sorry I am for being disrespectful to him.”
She added: “I should have minded my own business. The last 48 hours has taught me that my actions were those of someone who is not aware of the damage caused by being ignorant and naive to racial inequalities.” Nowhere in her apology did Alexander use the word “racist” or “racism.”
One factor that may contribute to the fascination with Karen videos: “Emotional expressions by women tend to come under greater scrutiny than those by men,” wrote the authors of “Constrained by Emotion: Women, Leadership, and Expressing Emotion in the Workplace,” a chapter in the 2016 “Handbook on Well-Being of Working Women.”
Women incur social and economic penalties for expressing stereotypical “masculine” emotions because they threaten society’s patriarchal barriers, researchers Jacqueline Smith, Victoria Brescoll and Erin Thomas wrote.
Denise Dudley, a San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based author and workplace consultant, said women, whether they are white or Black, are encouraged by society to withhold their anger, while men are encouraged to withhold their tears.
“Women are judged for being emotional,” she said. “We’re considered to be difficult when we get angry, whereas men are perceived as being tough and powerful.”
Research has actually suggested that men who get angry are perceived as strong and decisive, while women are more often seen as hysterical. That, Dudley said, could go some way in explaining why Karens seem to trigger more social-media viewers than Kens.
Whatever the underlying reasons why some white women and men are captured on video raging against mask mandates and people of color they meet on the street, Dudley says the moniker serves a useful purpose: It allows people to call out entitled, unacceptable behavior.
McNamarah agrees. “A problem which is not named cannot be solved. Violence which is neither acknowledged nor understood cannot be prevented. Hidden pain and undiagnosed injuries cannot be healed,” she concluded in her Michigan Journal of Race & Law paper.
In the most visible cases, social media is a powerful enough tool to bring a reckoning to those who are a public nuisance and/or call the cops on Black neighbors, or accuse Asian Americans of bringing the coronavirus to the U.S. It provides an important record of the event and often leads to a public backlash, worldwide opprobrium for the Karen or Ken in the video, and financial and professional repercussions for the busybody. Often times, behavior that hurts an individual’s or company’s bottom line is, for better or for worse, what it takes to affect change.
Of “San Francisco Karen,” Dudley said an empty smile can chill the bones more than an angry word. “She was scarier than the other ones,” she said.
It’s unlikely that this is the first time that Juanillo had to deal with white people who assume this space is their elevator, street corner, department store, swimming pool, public park, Ivy League college, and white-collar job.
Lisa Alexander and her husband walked away, visibly irritated that Juanillo did not acquiesce to their demands to stop what he was doing. Even while filming that testy exchange, Juanillo did manage to keep his cool and his sense of humor.
He told his millions of future viewers: “And that, people, is why Black lives matter. That’s Karen, and she’s calling the cops, and this is going to be really funny because she knows the people who live here. Personally.”
(This story was published on July 20, 2020, and updated on May 5, 2021.)