We Have A Problem With Karen
It’s time to retire the meme.
In this exclusive excerpt of Brianna’s Holt debut book, In Our Shoes: On Being A Young Black Woman In Not-So “Post-Racial” America, the journalist skewers the widespread adoption of “Karen” as a cultural meme.
One summer in Los Angeles, while shopping on Melrose with my boyfriend, a white woman threatened to call the police on me after hitting our car. I had finished my shopping before my boyfriend and didn’t feel like waiting around while he continued his shopping, so I headed back to the car early. I sat in the driver’s seat, scrolling through Instagram, when another car pulled in to park in front of us. Suddenly I felt my entire car shake. I honked instantly to alert the driver that they were hitting my car. Then I waited nearly five minutes for them to get out of their vehicle — after all, they had just parked, so I figured they’d be getting out soon. I wasn’t going to approach them, not knowing who was in the other car or what kind of emotions they might be feeling after the accident. Even the smallest fender benders tend to create hostile environments, and I wanted to avoid any kind of aggression. Instead, I took a photo with my phone, through the front window, of the license plate in front of me. That’s when a rushed, young white woman finally stepped out of the vehicle. She hurried over to the parking meter to pay, without acknowledging me or my car, so I rolled down my window and confronted her. “Excuse me, you know you hit my car, right?”
She looked at me with surprise and responded with something like “What are you talking about?” and continued to pay the parking meter. I was pissed. What could have been a simple settlement was going to turn into some unnecessary argument because this woman was not willing to take responsibility for her actions. Keeping my tone at a normal volume, I said, “You heard me honking multiple times, right? You felt your car hit something, right? Surely, you were aware of that.”
Unfortunately, the woman who hit our car would be referred to by society with a term, or more precisely, a name: Karen. A Karen is the kind of white woman who asks the little Black girl in her neighborhood for proof of certification for her lemonade stand, or calls the cops on a Black family barbecuing and playing loud music in a nearby public park. The name does not discriminate by age, beauty, or political status. Karen could be a 22-year-old, attractive white woman accusing a Black teen of stealing her phone in a hotel lobby; she could be a Democrat, Obama-supporting dog owner calling the cops on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park; Karen could be in the workplace, preparing an unnecessary email to the boss of a coworker because instead of addressing any concern directly, she reports every little discomfort to someone in power.
Personally, I hate the term Karen. Besides white women, no other subgroup has been afforded a harmless name to describe their harmful behavior.
As people started passing by and observing our conversation, the woman denied the accident totally. She continued to say I was lying, prompting me to show her the damage itself. I quickly texted my boyfriend, “come to the car, someone hit it,” and opened the door to step out.
Her demeanor changed entirely. She started to yell at me not to get out of my car and shouted that she felt threatened by me. She claimed I was overreacting and that she would call the police. I took a picture of the obvious damage to the car, a dent about the size of a tennis ball and got back in the car.
Right then my boyfriend, who is white, started to approach the car from across the street. He didn’t speak to me or even acknowledge my presence, causing the woman to think he was just a curious bystander or possibly someone coming to help her. He started to take photos of the damage, and then the woman turned to him, crying, and with the softest voice ever said something along the lines of “I don’t know why she’s being so aggressive toward me, she keeps saying I hit her car.”
In any other situation, I would have felt powerless next to her tears and false story, but luckily the person she was seeking help from was someone who already had my back. Shock, embarrassment, and anger filled her face when he responded, “That’s our car that you hit. Do you have insurance?”
Maybe she figured my boyfriend was a bystander and unrelated to me because he’s a white man. Maybe she assumed he would take her side and believe her lies, viewing her as a victim. Whatever delusion was behind her thinking, white women’s tears are powerful enough to control situations by shifting the blame off them and onto someone else.
Personally, I hate the term Karen. Besides white women, no other subgroup has been afforded a harmless name to describe their harmful behavior. In my opinion, giving dangerous behavior a simple English name humanizes the person at fault — and it baffles me that even when white women are putting others in danger, we still find ways to joke about their actions.
Karen is a meme, but the women who are labeled as such should be referred to as racist white women. Not Karens, not Pamelas, not Susans. The use of viral monikers becomes problematic when it assigns an innocuous and anonymous name to a person who has seemingly committed overtly racist actions. When white men commit overtly racist actions, we do not refer to them as Bob, or Mike, or Tom. In meme-ifying the name, people have normalized this behavior instead of working to dismantle it.
During Halloween of 2021, costume stores began selling Karen costumes, further pushing the idea that white women can dress up as someone racist, and when a heated white woman attacked a Black woman at a Victoria’s Secret in 2021 and self-victimized in the process, my white women friends shared the video on their social media accounts with comments like “f*cking Karens” or “Karens are so crazy.”
But in sharing videos that show the extreme version of Karen-like traits, or dressing up like “a Karen,” average white women suggest that they cannot relate to such harmful behavior. What most progressive and liberal white women should recognize is that Karen-like characteristics can be ingrained in them too.
When the woman in Los Angeles hit our car, for example, she probably didn’t identify as a Karen, in the same way she probably wouldn't identify as racist, even if her actions prove otherwise. Luckily, my boyfriend and I were able to disengage with her quickly. We realized our insurance would cover any damages to the car, and ultimately, it wasn't worth the anger it had caused me. She wasn’t worth the anger.
From the book IN OUR SHOES by Brianna Holt, to be published on April 11, 2023 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Brianna Holt.