What's in a name? Everything, if your name is Karen

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Nomenclature scholar Dr I.M. Nick opines that the meme's cultural power transcends any fallout that innocent Karens might have to bear along the way


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Wed 26 Aug 2020, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Mon 19 Feb 2024, 2:07 PM

You're probably well familiar with the viral Karen meme that has become especially prevalent on the Internet in recent months to denote white women acting entitled in public. It's been going around for a few years now, but several incidents involving middle-aged white women exhibiting racist behaviour and exploiting their privilege have led to netizens branding any woman involved in such an incident a Karen. So, now it's set in stone. 

Asking for the manager? What a Karen. Middle-aged and white? Pfft, typical Karen. Sporting a specific side-swept bob hairstyle? The Internet already knows her name: it's Karen. The moniker has long fallen from grace, going from being one of the top 10 baby names in the US in the 50s and 60s to ranking at #635 in 2018. But at least it wasn't associated with a slur. 

To be clear, no one is excusing the problematic behaviour displayed by Amy Cooper & Co. If you feel the need to hysterically call the police on a black man politely asking you to leash your dog in a park that specifically asks visitors to do so — that too in race-divided America — you're the one who needs a wake-up call. If you're going to maliciously cough in the face of someone who asks you to wear a mask in a public space, in keeping with safety guidelines in the age of Covid-19, you probably do need your temperature checked.  

My concern is that none of the people being vilified online as 'Karens' in recent months are actually called Karen. Yet, the name is being bandied about as a pejorative. Does no one on the woker-than-woke bandwagon recognise that there's more than a little sad irony in folks trying to dismantle one type of stereotype by gleefully propagating another? In trying to call out racist behaviour, must we be classist and sexist too?  

Some have argued that you can "be a Karen without being a Karen", if you get their drift. Others have tried to go the relative route: "Yes, your name is being dragged through the mud for no fault of yours, but hey, at least you don't have to endure discrimination like people of colour do." 

Say that to the latest survey to come out of the UK this week that found 62 per cent of UK adults now associate the name Karen with traits including entitlement, obnoxiousness, privilege and being demanding. Sixty-nine per cent said they wouldn't name their child Karen due to the "associated connotations", and would "be concerned" when having to talk to someone with the same name. Fourteen per cent of those surveyed even said the connotations are a "fair representation" of anyone named Karen. 

It's not difficult to see why the meme is having its time in the sun right now. People of colour are tired of dealing with the destructive trinity of prejudice, privilege, and skewed power structures. They're tired of being shouted down and #LivingWhileBlack. But you know something is off when folks start adopting the very biases they're protesting against. 

The first time I came across an article on the meme online, I saw a non-white, non-middle-aged Karen make the mistake of casually protesting, in the comments, how Karen had become the new Judas. It was shocking to see how many people — who would, no doubt, identify themselves as be-kind-to-all types offline — subjected her to a cruel stream of mockery, even though she obviously didn't fit the archetype of her name. 

Nomenclature scholar Dr I.M. Nick, in a recent interview, opined that the meme's cultural power transcends any fallout that innocent Karens might have to bear along the way. She suggested working against the direct source of such discrimination instead. But if you agree, can I ask that you take your own advice? By all means, call out white privilege and racist behaviour. But go to the source. Let's not stoop to name-calling.

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