Karen wants her name back.
She’s tired of being the poster girl, or female meme, for whining white women who exude too much privilege.
In an era when most prominent people carefully avoid stereotypical labels, “Karen” has been on the lips of high-profile figures such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. Chocolatiers embarrass her. Pastors chide her. Children won’t wear her T-shirts.
The stereotype is everywhere, they say.
Karen Lonning of Troy, Missouri, finds the usage hurtful: “I don’t like giving anyone my name.”
At first she let the insult roll off her. But then friends and family were posting constantly on Facebook, telling her “don’t get your panties in a wad” if she objected.
“They are thinking it’s cute,” she says, and “don’t really get what it means.”
If people use the name snidely, linguist Karen Van Hook says, it means they “want to shun and mock you.”
Other onlookers believe the label is also a way to shut women down, to discount their complaints: covert sexism with a modern whiff of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
And when real Karens try to explain how the insult goes beyond teasing, they may receive little sympathy. Some people point out that people of color and immigrants have suffered racism or ethnic slurs for many decades, and this pales in comparison. For years, some minorities have Anglicized their birth names to avoid slurs or discrimination.
“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,” Karen Attiah wrote last year in the Washington Post. “‘Karen,’” she said, “is not and will never be an oppressive slur.”
Still, after an especially hostile couple of years of jokes and slurs, some real Karens have considered reverting to a middle name; others have lost friends. But a few Karens are pushing back, trying to reinstate it as a name in good standing.
Facebook pages and websites have become serious support groups for real Karens, says one administrator.
“We even have workshops by a professional anti-bullying coach who talks about how to keep our name and deal with the toxicity,” says Van Hook of Somerville, Massachusetts.
As a linguist, she has carefully followed how the insulting use of “Karen” has evolved. She joined Facebook’s Karens United in April 2020, when the group had only about 100 members. (It now has more than 1,700, including some from St. Louis.) The group was started in November 2019. “At that time, the Karen meme was more of a joke,” Van Hook says.
The derogatory use of Karen is linguistically unusual in that it doesn’t even have to be part of a larger set phrase (unlike, say, “Debbie Downer”), she says. She notes it’s also different from cases where a name is converted into a common, lowercase noun to describe an object (as in “I must use the john”).
Van Hook says members of Karens United are now sensitized to the fact that people with names such as Debbie and John object to those slang phrases, but “Karen” goes further: It’s using the name alone as a one-word “insult name.”
Some articles about “Karen” track the negative usage to the 2004 film “Mean Girls,” a Dane Cook comedy routine (2005) or a Reddit subforum (2017).
But during the pandemic, it really took off, with “Karen” criticized as both an anti-masker and as a woman who nagged people to wear masks. She was portrayed, often with blond, helmet hair, as stupid or annoying, a white woman criticized by other white people.
Her image took a public turn for the worse in May 2020 after a white woman walking her dog falsely complained to police that a Black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park was threatening her. His sister posted a video to Twitter, noting “when Karens take a walk with their dogs off leash ...” and linking the woman (whose name was not Karen) to racism.
The same day, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis, prompting social justice protests around the country. Van Hook thought that surely Americans would realize they had more important things to worry about than sharing Karen memes. But Karen actually gained prominence as shorthand for a racist white woman.
“I was upset,” Van Hook says. “I was frankly frightened.”
Although many on social media, and late night comedians, still treat the insult as a joke, Van Hook says it’s a scary and unusual use of a name:
“Women named Karen haven’t been beaten up yet, but there’s other crazy behavior.”
• Harassers have called them “Ku Klux Karen” and told them to change their names or kill themselves, according to karenismyname.org.
• Tweets have said things like “i should have known i needed a new therapist as soon as i found out her name was karen”; “Say a prayer for me ... I work with 2 women actually named Karen”; “It’s very important to Kill All Karens.”
• A Super Bowl commercial for M&Ms candy included a woman apologizing for calling someone Karen. The second woman replies, “My name is Karen,” and the first woman gives her more candy, saying, “I’m sorry your name is Karen.”
• A “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” clip showed young children answering a question about what “Karen” meant. Many knew the stereotype. They were then asked how Karens should be “punished.”
• A pastor, John Pavlovitz, posted a YouTube video claiming “we have a Karen problem,” and using “karening” to describe racist actions. Grasping for another metaphor, he clumsily compared people who won’t call out racist Karens to those scared to inform others they have a “piece of broccoli” in their teeth.
• YouTube star Randy Rainbow tweeted: “Seriously though, if you had to choose one would you rather name your firstborn daughter COVID-19 or Karen?”
The above examples seem to indicate that some people do associate real Karens with the slur. “They are taking a name and converting it into an anti-name,” Van Hook says.
But the fact that some imperious white women have called police on Black people doesn’t justify use of Karen as a jokey code word for inexcusable behavior, says karenismyname.org. The site condemns racism:
“Serious problems such as racist harassment and behaviors that can easily get people killed need to be called out as what they are — abhorrent racism — in ways that don’t obscure the names of the perpetrators or the seriousness of their actions.”
“People don’t understand just how hurtful it is,” Lonning of Troy says.
Now 67, Lonning grew up in a white family who lived near Kinloch, she says. She never considered her family privileged: “We were teased in school for the way we dressed. I think that’s why I’ve always tried to be nice.”
Like other Karens of her era, Lonning is proud of her name: In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was often among the top 10 names for baby girls.Another woman, 57-year-old Karen Montjoy of University City, says her mother told her and her siblings that names were important. The family, which is Black, was given mostly mainstream, popular names.
She says current use of Karen is discriminatory, especially to older women. She recalls a trip to a doctor’s office. When a woman in the office starting calling out “Karen,” and Montjoy approached her, “she looked like I was about to do something.”
Montjoy greeted her with “how are you?” and recalls that the woman didn’t seem able to respond: “I guess she was expecting another type of Karen.”
Karen Burch, manager of videography at Webster University, said when people started sending her memes and gifs, they’d assure her “but you aren’t one.” She was curious about the phenomenon and viewed it as educational: “It has made me more aware of where my privilege might be showing.”
The 56-year-old, who lives in South County, did become a bit nervous when ordering food and sometimes would provide a different name.
She doesn’t get too offended by the trend, but notes: “There are some angry comments (online) that are hard to see.”
Karen Clark, 68, who lives in Lake Saint Louis, says she lost a friend who couldn’t seem to understand that Clark didn’t appreciate “Karen” jokes. They were having dinner, and Clark was asked why she was so “sensitive.”
“I kept trying to defend myself, saying, ‘What is more personal than my name?’”
Eventually Clark got up and walked out. Later, she wrote a note of apology but was told again she was too sensitive.
A piano instructor, Clark’s business is called Karen’s Creative Keyboard. She wanted to make T-shirts for a concert, but parents confirmed students might be uncomfortable with the name. So Clark put KCK on the shirts instead.
When she posts Facebook messages telling people that “Karen” jokes are hurtful or asks that they be kind, sometimes the insulter doubles down: One man responded, “YOU’RE A (EXPLETIVE) KAREN!”
“When we’ve talked publicly, we’ve been abused,” Clark says. She believes people are using Karen as a substitute for “bitch,” a word that may be filtered on some websites or social media.
But — sometimes — an individual will apologize.
“One guy said: ‘It just slipped out. It’s become part of my vocabulary.’”
In Great Britain, Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman pointed last year to responses she got after agreeing with another white writer and saying the insult is “sexist, ageist and classist, in that order.”
She wrote: “Soon, I had thousands of responses. Some were from people of colour, frustrated that the term’s original meaning had been lost and that two white women were denigrating a term they use to describe racism, and fair enough. But they were at least equalled by men gleefully calling me a Karen (‘OK, Karen’) and telling me to make them a sandwich. Truly, few things warm the heart like the palpable excitement of men when they find a new misogynistic term they can lob at women with impunity.”
John Baugh, a linguistics professor at Washington University, says people can’t stop language from changing.
He believes the Karen stereotype of a white woman of privilege “resonated with enough other people” that it caught on, aided by social media.
“Social media really has impacted linguistic change, especially how fast things can spread,” he says.
Baugh, a Black man who has written extensively about linguistic profiling and who works with students in African American studies, says ethnic and racial groups have fought slurs for a long time, often without success.
He says Karens may inadvertently reinforce the perception that they seek preferential treatment, despite the fact that they have been vilified indirectly through no fault of anyone whose name just happens to be Karen.
But some slang words do disappear, he says: “Groovy came and went, but cool is here to stay.”
The speed of social media may mean that last year’s favorite jab could become overused. Also, some commenters are also calling out use of Karen as an all-purpose insult.
On karenismyname.org, an “empathy generator” lets visitors insert their own name. It substitutes that in memes and news stories that insult “Karen.”
It says, “A person’s own name produces a special response in the brain; take your time and notice what this is like.”
Karen Clark tells others not to change their names: “I tell them they will still be triggered, but who knows what the next name will be that society will decide is bad?”