In today’s cultural landscape, the term “Karen” has become a loaded label, wielding the power to demean and dismiss certain behaviors. Being branded a “Karen” can be deeply hurtful, implying entitlement, aggression, or an unreasonable attitude. This unfortunate reality hit close to home for me recently when my friend Sarah politely requested a gluten-free option at a restaurant, yet found herself unfairly labeled with this harmful term. It left her feeling hurt and frustrated, a stark reminder of the sting this word carries.
To understand the complexities of this label and its impact, I embarked on research that extended beyond the casual meme fodder. Studies articles and exploring implicit bias provided deeper context, unveiling the potential for harmful stereotypes and unfair prejudices embedded within this seemingly playful term. Through Sarah’s experience and my research, I aim to explore various responses to being called a “Karen,” fostering empathy, understanding, and ultimately, constructive communication.
What is a Karen?
Though anyone who exhibits such behaviors might be termed a Karen, the name “Karen” today carries a negative connotation and is most commonly used to refer to a white, middle-class lady who acts entitled, selfish, and/or disrespectful towards others. Some commonplace actions that could prompt someone to refer to someone else as a Karen are: When someone requests to talk with the store manager to file a complaint.
1. When a customer returns food to a restaurant.
2. When someone acts in a micro-aggressive or racist manner towards other people.
3. Although the term “Karen” is typically used to disparage women, men may sometimes be referred to as “Karens” by others.
|Derogatory term for a woman (often middle-aged, white) perceived as entitled, demanding, and prone to public meltdowns.
|Early 2000s internet forums, possibly evolving from earlier slang terms like “Becky” or “soccer mom.”
|2010s viral videos and social media posts depicting “Karen” behavior, often exaggerated and stereotypical.
|Reinforces and racist stereotypes, overgeneralizes individual behavior, enables bullying and harassment, and hinders constructive dialogue.
|Focus on specific actions, encourage respectful communication, address underlying biases, and promote empathy and understanding.
Where did the meme come from?
The meme gained popularity a few years ago as a method for people of colour, especially Black Americans, to mock the prejudice they frequently encounter that is motivated by both race and class, though its precise roots are unknown.
The ability to record conflicts on our cellphones has made it simpler to document situations on tape and post them to social media during the past ten years. An example of this would be a mother reporting to the police when a black eight-year-old child was selling water without a permit.
Online users gave the culprits obnoxious names that fit the context when these videos eventually became popular.
After this trend really took off in 2018, one or two of these names—Karen being one of them—became the most well-known.
It also came to be associated with a certain kind of hairdo, namely the short, choppy cut that US reality TV star Kate Gosselin wore in 2010. (Gosselin’s hairstyle has subsequently changed.)
Additionally, though it is not as popular, a male variant of the Karen meme has surfaced in recent months: Ken. Rich couple Patricia and Mark McCloskey gained notoriety as “Karen and Ken” in June after they were seen brandishing firearms at demonstrators outside their St. Louis, Missouri, home.
How the Karen meme relates to the violent history of white women
While seemingly a humorous meme, the “Karen” stereotype carries unsettling echoes of the violent history of white women in America. Much like the “damsel in distress” who relied on white men for protection, the “Karen” weaponizes her fragility and whiteness to control and punish Black people and other marginalized groups. Her weapon of choice often isn’t a physical one, but the threat of her social capital, wielding the police or authority figures like dominos to tip the scales of justice in her favor.
This echoes the historical role of white women who, while not directly participating in lynchings and Jim Crow laws, often bolstered these systems through silent complicity, upholding a racial order that benefited them. Today, the “Karen” meme, despite its intended humor, risks trivializing this legacy by reducing it to a caricature, obscuring the real harm inflicted when white women weaponize their privilege and fragility against those deemed “threatening.” It’s crucial to critically examine the “Karen” meme, not just for its potential to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but also for the way it might obscure the deeper connections to systems of power and racialized violence that have long been wielded by white women in America.
Things to Be Aware of
- Instead of retaliating violently if someone calls you a Karen, take a deep breath and remain composed. This lets them know that you don’t take any of their words seriously.
- Tell them how you truly feel about their comment and ask them to explain why they called you a Karen. “That makes me feel disrespected,” for instance.
- “Karen” is a name frequently used to describe individuals (typically middle-class, white women) who behave rudely, entitledly, or racistly towards others.
How to React When Someone Calls You a Karen
- Remain composed instead of becoming enraged
Although it can be very difficult to not take things personally, maintaining your composure and reducing your wrath conveys to the other person that their remarks are meaningless to you. Reacting out of frustration can also give the impression to the other person that their remark could have some validity.
- Take a moment to compose yourself and inhale deeply if someone refers to you as a Karen. Even if you’re initial reaction might be to respond with a similar insult, try to control yourself and keep your cool.
- Alternatively, to help you control your anger, mentally repeat a soothing word or phrase, like “calm down” or “relax,” several times.
|Karen gets upset that a store won’t let her shop without a protective facemask. She then tried to pretend like she’s the victim, despite the store giving her options. This is pure arrogance. https://t.co/qgFLhKjgxd #COVIDIDIOTS #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/OXV4EQLOgD
— Khary Penebaker (@kharyp) May 17, 2020
- Ask for clarification
Ask them directly if you believe there is a specific reason why you were dubbed a Karen. Asking “What makes you think that?” is one way to start. Or “May I ask you how you think I’m acting Karen-like?” Understanding the “why” behind their statement will enable you to comprehend their goals and the meaning behind their comment.
- For instance, it’s possible that they were trying to warn you about your behavior, which may have come out as impolite to others, rather than intentionally insulting you by calling you a Karen.
- If they are not able to provide a valid rationale, it is likely that their insult is untrue and does not represent who you are as a person.
- Tell them how their comment made you feel
Tell them how their remarks made you feel, and be honest with them, instead of reacting with an insult or response of your own. To keep the conversation focused on your feelings and to avoid coming across as accusing them of anything, use “I” phrases. Say, “I felt really hurt hearing that,” for instance, rather than,
- “You’re really mean, you know that?” You may even say something like, “That makes me feel really disrespected.”
- “I would appreciate it if you treated me with respect, but I don’t expect you to agree with me on everything.”
- “It bothers me that you call me that and propagate such negative stereotypes.”
|Let me introduce you to Karen’s little brother Kyle. (They got a cousin named Kip)… https://t.co/hnP6x4tU9T
— G O L D I E. (@goldietaylor) May 19, 2020
- Own up to your actions if you made a mistake
If you did something that the other person perceived as being very “Karen-like” (such as behaving haughty around a service provider or saying something offensive), own up to your error and move on. Think at it as a chance to grow as a person and learn from your mistakes, even if it was something small.
- Refrain from assigning blame to others or objects, and do not attempt to justify your behavior. Say something like, “I was acting insensitively and I’m sorry,” or “There’s no excuse for my behavior,” if you’re the one who is at blame. You don’t have to be too hard on yourself if you accept responsibility for your errors.
- You don’t have to be too hard on yourself if you accept responsibility for your errors. Once you’ve accepted responsibility for your faults, extend compassion and forgiveness to yourself. This can assist you in letting go of the incident and keeping a happier outlook so you can grow from your errors.
- Express Curiosity
Having said that, I strongly advise not taking Karen’s words personally. I am aware that some people may use these names because they believe certain myths or make certain assumptions. By emotionally distancing yourself from comments, I advise you to remind yourself that this phrase does not define who you are as a person. This tactic, in my opinion, helps you maintain emotional equilibrium and a healthy feeling of self-worth.
- Use humor to diffuse the tension
I always wonder why people call someone Karen. I would rather seek out a deeper understanding than ignore or argue with someone.
- You may say, “Could you please clarify why you used that word? in my opinion. I have a lot of questions. “When I hear your point of view, I just want to talk to you and understand your perspective.”
- I think that elucidating something can assist you in assessing its veracity and perspective on the world. You can also carry on lengthier talks and express yourself more effectively.
- I’m confident that you will clarify things and have an engaging conversation in this way.
Something like, “Well, they say I’ve got the ‘Karen’ gene, but I promise I’m also cultivating my ‘zen’ side!” would be a hilarious response. Can bring on a smile and ease the tension in the conversation.
- Ignore them
Even if it would be difficult to ignore a remark like that, there are instances when it will benefit you more to ignore the other person. Change the subject and refrain from responding to what they said. You can also physically withdraw from the conversation by turning to face the other person.
|PLEASE stop being Karens & attacking essential workers who have to follow the crazy emergency protocols set in place by their employers
— wiggle worm (@bassbunnii) May 19, 2020
- Reflect Empathy
I feel that someone can shift the topic by posing a question when they address other people as Karen.
- Say something along the lines of, “I’d really like to know more about how my actions came across.”
This, in my opinion, encourages others to openly express their opinions and shows that you are open to hearing what others have to say. I’m confident that being open to their point of view allows the two of you to communicate freely. This can facilitate problem-solving, encourage better understanding, and yield better outcomes.
- Focus on Resolution
When someone addresses you as Karen, I suggest you consider their feelings and respond to them with empathy to have a more productive conversation.
- As a result, I advise you to reply, “I apologize if my actions provided that impression. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what happened. Could we continue our discussion on this?
- In my opinion, by exhibiting empathy in this situation, you may show that you value their perspective and do not downplay their feelings.
This tactic promotes respect and understanding. This will make it easier to find a solution that works for both of us.
- Learn and Grow
If I steer the discourse towards a solution, I see it as a positive step.
- Saying something along the lines of, “Finding a solution that works for everyone involved is my priority, regardless of how my actions appeared,” would be my opinion. Could we come up with some suggestions jointly? might be beneficial.
- This, in my opinion, shows how determined you are to collaborate with people of all identities.
If I were you, I would shift the focus from responsibility to solutions to demonstrate my commitment to finding practical solutions to problems.
How to Not Be a Karen
- Recognize your privilege
Throughout history, society has bestowed privileges on different groups according to factors such as gender, financial level, educational attainment, race, and ethnicity. These rights are frequently obtained by subjugating and suppressing other minority groups. Think about any privileges you may have in your own life for a moment, and acknowledge them for what they are. These privileges are usually unavoidable, but being aware of them can help you keep them from being abused.
- Talk about matters of privilege with those who are close to you. When circumstances seem unjust because of privileges, don’t be hesitant to point it out, and listen to other people’s stories and experiences with an open mind.
- Practice empathy toward others
Sometimes actions perceived as Karen-like can be interpreted as conceited and egocentric. You should be patient and empathetic with everyone, including strangers and close friends, to avoid providing the wrong impression to others. Despite your frustration, take a deep breath and consider the other person’s perspective. If they are willing to share their tale, pay attention to it and have an open mind.
- For instance, if someone botches your coffee order, don’t get angry; instead, be patient and politely request another one. The employee can be new and still get the hang of things. Or perhaps it was just a sincere error. Consider these ideas to develop empathy.
- Recognize and unlearn implicit bias
Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, can nevertheless have an impact on how someone judges other people. Usually, they are founded on prejudices that an individual has internalized through time. To eliminate these unconscious prejudices, consider any preconceived notions you may have about someone based on their appearance, occupation, or educational background, and consider the veracity of your conclusions.
- Assuming that a young individual in their 20s wouldn’t have enough work experience to be a successful boss is an example of unconscious bias.
- Another illustration would be hearing the term “kindergarten teacher” and instantly seeing a woman.
- Make a conscious effort to view the people around you as individuals rather than a member of a specific group.
- Call out racist behavior—including your own
Racism is characterized as a type of prejudice that holds that some racial groupings are inferior to others because of their differences. Racist conduct comprises discriminating against specific groups, holding racial stereotypes to be true, and exhibiting negative emotional responses towards members of a particular racial group. Speak up if you witness something like this. Spoken out against racist “jokes” or remarks made by others; also, report any instances of discriminatory behavior that you witness, particularly in places of employment or education.
- Recognize any unfavorable preconceptions you might have about particular groups and make an effort to alter them. Consider each person as an individual instead of judging them only based on their race or ethnicity.
- Learn about the current problems with racism and discrimination. You may question your own prejudices and become more compassionate towards others simply by becoming better informed.
Being labeled a “Karen” can be a challenging experience, but how you respond can make a significant difference. By understanding the context of the label, sharing personal experiences, maintaining self-awareness, choosing your battles wisely, responding with empathy, and incorporating relevant research, you can navigate this situation with grace and contribute to a more constructive discourse.
Q: Someone called me a Karen! What should I do?
A: Stay calm, don’t escalate. Focus on the issue, not the name-calling. Try clarifying why they used the term and redirect to a constructive conversation.
Q: What are some good responses to being called a Karen?
A: 1. “Interesting, can you tell me what made you think that?” (Clarification) 2. “I can understand your frustration, but let’s talk about this respectfully.” (Reassert Calmly) 3. “My name is [your name], and I believe in advocating for myself.” (Humor + Reassertion)
Q: Do I have to respond at all?
A: No, sometimes walking away is the best option. Choose the approach that feels comfortable and safe for you.
Q: Is being labeled a “Karen” always negative?
A6: While the term is often used negatively, the blog encourages self-reflection and humility. It suggests that, if the criticism is valid, using the experience as an opportunity for personal growth can be more constructive than defending oneself.