The invention of a slur: How we got to Karen

"Karen" has been with us only a short while, but in that time, it has gone from a mild joke, the name of an annoying woman in your friend group, to a slur against white women.

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY

"Karen" has been with us only a short while, but in that time, it has gone from a mild joke, the name of an annoying woman in your friend group, to a slur against white women. We have watched and participated in the invention of a slur.

We all know what a Karen is. And as time has gone on, we have come to dislike her more and more. There are the variables—she's got a specific kind of hair cut maybe, and a Karen could be from any part of the country—but for certain a Karen is white. She's sure of herself, and she's certain that her view is the correct one. She's not averse to taking matters into her own hands, whether it's asking for the manager or calling the cops on a lemonade stand.

Insider's Rachel E. Greenspan tracked the emergence of the Karen meme all the way back to a Dane Cook comedy special from 2005. There's the Karen of Mean Girls, the subreddit r/F***YouKaren, which has more than 600,000 followers and is "dedicated to the hatred of Karen."

Greenspan quoted Know Your Meme senior editor Matt Schimkowitz, who said "Usually, the meme is associated with lower stakes situations, like a person at an Applebee's who got the wrong meal—not serious questions of racial justice and silence and privilege."

By the time Karen hit the coronavirus pandemic, it was clear that this term was going to have lots of applications. A woman who refuses to wear a face mask could be a Karen, but so could one who yells at you about your face mask. A woman who tells you to social distance could definitely be a Karen, as could one who refuses to do it. Karens are obnoxious and self-righteous on either side of the partisan pandemic divide.

It's moved past all of that now. A recent article by Sonia Saraiya in the July/August issue of Vanity Fair adds a new dimension to the concept of a Karen, and in so doing, she really fills out what it means to be called one. A Karen is white woman. She is a conservative, probably a Trump voter. A Karen benefits both from the protections of patriarchal society and from the token freedoms provided to her by the women's lib movement. And she takes all of this for granted.

Saraiya writes that there is a fascination with figuring out what makes these women tick, trying to understand why they, for example, voted for Trump is 2016. She thinks that media is spending far too much time trying to figure them out, and they shouldn't bother.

Her summation is that Karens are basically "…helpmeets to white nationalism." Saraiya writes that the term "has become so indispensable in the online discourse of 2020."

"A nickname drawn from African American vernacular," she continues, "a Karen is a type—lately the type of woman who protests pandemic lockdown because she needs to get her nails done, but more broadly, the type of white woman who calls the police to report and infringement on her privilege, even when she’s the one breaking the rules. It's not the most precise language—'white nationalist racist gender traitor' seems a bit stronger—but it gets us to some kind of understanding. It’s a start."

What Saraiya is saying is that when a white woman behaves in a way that you think she shouldn't, you get to call her a word that means she's a horrible racist white lady, with all the vitriol that those words imply.

If a woman, to use Saraiya's example, is tired of being in quarantine and lockdown for more than five months and really misses her self-care manicure, then she is a) heartless to the point of not caring about those who are impacted by coronavirus, b) only cares about her own stupid wants and needs, and c) is therefore racist.

Saraiya says that Karen is considered to be an "indispensable" term. Apparently, we need a word to describe busy-body white ladies that also ascribes racism to their words, attitudes, and reactions. What exactly makes this term so essential "in the online discourse of 2020?'

One of the complaints of the current iteration of social justice activists is that for too long, "white" has been seen as a neutral in both racial and cultural terms. All other races were held up to that standard, and were discriminated against based on how far they deviated from that norm.

Now the answer is to make these women their own particular class of bad person. It appears to be that the goal is to take away the white women's neutrality, and replace it with specific traits that are undesirable. No one wants to be a Karen. Someone who is a Karen is basically irredeemable, she needs to apologize. Her work, friends, and family all need to be notified that she is worse than gum scraped from the bottom of shoes.

Urban Dictionary defines Karen as "rude, obnoxious and insufferable middle aged white women. Karens take everything wrong with the typical over entitled western woman and crank it up by several thousand percent."

No woman out there complaining to the Fuddrucker's manager about how her bogo coupon should be honoured despite the expiration date wants to be called a Karen. Yet it's the addition of the certainly that Karen is racist that is the real issue. Accusations of racism can be a fireable offense. Central Park "Karen" lost her job over being a Karen, and plenty of Karens have been internet shamed.

Karen is a new slur for a white woman. With just one word, her right to decent treatment in society is called into question. Often, in discussions of privilege, the question is asked as to how frequently a person has had racial slurs directed their way. Karen is now a term that should be counted among the rest. It is not as storied or as deep as the many others that are in that unholy glossary, but it certainly is the newest race-based insult to join their ranks. Karen is the latest racial slur.


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