What It Means to Call Someone a “Karen”: Refreshing the Meaning of Power Dynamics and Oppression

Karen Slur BELatina Latinx
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Calling you a Karen does not equate to a racial/sexist/classist slur, Karen. There’s no manager you can talk to at this time, but I will try to break it down for you.

In the context of discrimination, slurs are derogatory terms used to insult a marginalized group of people based on their gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, etc. While the origin of the term is unclear, “Karen” has been widely popularized on Black Twitter in the recent years. The concept of a white, racist, middle class woman who weaponizes her privileges against others? That has existed for much longer.

Karen has gone by different names. Back in the ’90s, whenBaby Got Back‘ came out, it was Becky,” said Meredith D. Clark in an interview with The Atlantic. Clark is a Black scholar and journalist who teaches a class called “#BlackTwitter and Black Digital Culture” in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research exhibits the ways in which this cultural reference has always been around.

Given that racism and classism are inherently linked to a history of systemic oppression, white, middle class people will only find themselves on the oppressor side of such narratives. As a white, middle class woman, your identities carry more social and structural power. You will never be disadvantaged because of your skin color or economic status.

Before you label the term as sexist, you also have to look at the people who are calling you a Karen. It’s Black women and marginalized communities who have dealt with your racist, classist name-calling like Shaniqua, María, and Ling-Ling. The difference? They are using “Karen” as a way to describe a dangerous archetype. You are using María, Shaniqua, and Ling-Ling as a way to make fun of their culture, social class, and race.

BELatina Latinx Karen Slur
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Karen Attiah, a Black journalist with The Washington Post, explained it better than I ever could in her recent opinion piece: “In America, white women are often believed and protected at all costs, even at the expense of Black lives… Becky and Karen memes and jokes should be understood in this context, part of a long tradition to use humor to try to cope with the realities of white privilege and anti-blackness.”

Humor plays on power dynamics as well. If you, as a white, middle class woman, make women of color the punchline of your jokes: I have news for you! It’s not a joke. It’s just another expression of oppressive power and hate speech. Making fun of a group that’s already discriminated against at a state level only reinforces negative stereotypes. 

These stereotypes, though they may seem innocuous to Karens, often result in the criminalization of people who are simply going about their day.

You don’t believe me? Look at all the Karens calling the police (and ICE) on a Black neighborhood couple minding their own business, a Filipino writing “Black Lives Matter” on the wall of his own house, a Black girl selling water to go to Disney, a Black man asking to keep a dog on a leash, a Latino Starbucks employee trying to follow public health regulations, two Latina street vendors selling tacos, a group of Puerto Ricans playing music at a public park, etc.

But who are they? Susan from Montclair, Lisa Alexander from San Francisco, Alison Ettel from San Francisco, Amy Cooper from New York, Amber Lynn Gilles from San Diego, and Valerie from Dallas. The most important part about calling out Karens is identifying as many of them as possible.

Slur Karen BELatina Latinx
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