The term Karen is a popular internet meme to denote the white woman who calls the cops on Black people minding their business. However LeRon Barton argues that it can trivialise acts of racist violence.
Waking up every morning, my thoughts consist of being productive, a reliable family member and friend, a writer who aims to tell the truth in their work, and someone who is always learning and improving. Poetics aside, my life has a heavier weight as a Black man. From avoiding any interaction with the police, experiencing off-handed comments from co-workers, and the daily microaggressions that are thrown at me, being an African-American man can be very challenging at times.
Because discrimination is so common, sometimes Black people may downplay the impact of racism. We may sit back and rationalize our treatment, blame it on “ignorance”, or people not understanding who we are, call it something else like white privilege, or even name racist white women “Karens.” It’s all to deal with the terror that is white supremacy. And while jokingly mocking people as “Karens” may be funny at the time, I believe it is causing more harm than good.
“While we may make fun of the “Karen,” the problem I feel is that we are missing the point of how dangerous this behavior is.”
In the past few years there have been a slew of white women calling the police on African-Americans or simply harassing us for various reasons. In May 2018, Jennifer Schulte contacted law enforcement when she saw Black people BBQing at Lake Merritt, a public park in Oakland. Schulte was then labeled “BBQ Becky.” Across the bridge in San Francisco, Allison Ettel earned the nickname “Permit Patty ” after alerting police of a young Black girl selling water outside of San Francisco Giants stadium in June 2018.
The following winter, Stephanie Sebby-Strempel of Summervile, South Carolina verbally assaulted a 15 year old Black teenager, now known as Pool Patrol Paula. However, it wasn’t until May 2021 when Amy Cooper of Manhattan, New York dialed 911 on bird watcher Christian Cooper, that the label Karen was bestowed.
From there, any white woman that called the police on Black people for any harmless thing, asked to speak with management when they were not satisfied with service, or confronting African-Americans for living, were called Karens. The term is now shorthand for a loud, n annoying and space invading white woman that always feels the need to tell, boss around, and have a confrontational tone just because. While we may make fun of the “Karen,” the problem I feel is that we are missing the point of how dangerous this behavior is.
When we talk of racism today, the group that receives the most ire is white men. Much of the charges of white supremacy, systemic racism, and bigotry lands at the feet of Caucasian males, and with good reason. Historically, white men have held all of the power, sat in most leadership positions, and made many (if all) of the decisions concerning the direction of this country. From politics, economics, law, education, and media, white men have controlled it. While much of this analysis is true, it still unfairly targets white males as the “sole problem” and does not view white women as being capable of racism.
White women are often not mentioned as racists, but viewed as unwilling counterparts in the system of white supremacy. They have to go along with the violence and destruction meted out by white men because they are often their mothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends. Sexism has also harmed white women, so they would be natural allies in the fight for justice one would think. However, this thought is a mistake. In the book, They Were Her Property, Stephanie E. Jones-Rodgers explains the role of white women in the slave trade. Jones-Rodgers found that nearly 40% of the bill of sales for slaves in South Carolina were either from a female buyer or trader. Racism/White Supremacy cannot work without white women’s participation.
“From Carol Bryant falsely accusing Emmett Till of whistling at her to the Exonerated Five being wrongly imprisoned for rape, America has always believed white women’s accusations towards Black people, and more often than not, we have paid the price for this“
My interactions with white women for the most part have always been easy, but with caution. While I rarely have issues with people due to my easy going and relatable personality, I understand that no matter how chill I am, there is a part of me that knows the tears or “Fearing the big Black man” act can turn on quickly. I have been in situations where a simple conversation where I am unwilling to concede or back down can turn me into a “threatening figure.” Every Black man knows this: white women can turn on the water works and victimhood faster than you can say “Blueberry pancakes” (well not that fast). Because of this, we have to step cautiously. If you raise your voice slightly, give off an intimidating vibe, or just disagree, you could be a threat. When I am at work or a corporate office setting, in a meeting with a white woman one-on-one, I will ask to keep the door open for my safety. This is to ensure there is nothing that is said or done that no one cannot witness.
The problem with the term Karen is it makes light of dangers these white women pose. When they call the police on Black people for doing, well anything, it is viewed as annoying. People laugh at white women’s entitlement in public space. Their behavior is not looked at through the lens of racism, but an irritant, something that can be shrugged off. However, what we seem to miss is how racism/white supremacy plays a part in this. White women’s victimhood has always been a factor in it.
From Carol Bryant falsely accusing Emmett Till of whistling at her to the Exonerated Five being wrongly imprisoned for rape, America has always believed white women’s accusations towards Black people, and more often than not, we have paid the price for this. I believe these actions of yesterday have carried over to today. Anytime a white woman has expressed fear or anxiety over the presence of Black people, either from clutching her purse, “calling the manager”, or any type of discomfort, she is believed, because America has always seen us as violent brutes. This goes back to DW Griffth’s The Birth Of A Nation. In the film, the Klu Klux Klan are heroes, saving the white women from the animalistic Black man. These calls of fear to the police and acts of entitlement reinforce this belief today – African-American’s are dangerous and need to be controlled.
I have never used the term Karen and never will. The displays of arrogance and false fear are nothing more than racism in the act. Slapping a silly label on an outburst or false accusation is wrong. This is racism, not a funny meme that is to be shared around the internet. What these women are doing is extremely violent and can result in arrests, incarceration, and even death. I don’t find it funny. What happened to Emmitt Till is not funny. What happened to the Exonerated Five is not funny. What happened to Christian Cooper is not funny. Let’s put these incidents in their proper place – acts of hate.
LeRon L. Barton is a writer in San Francisco. His book All We Really Need Is Love: Stories of Dating, Relationships, Divorce, and Marriage is available at Amazon.com. You can view his TEDx speech – How I overcame my stutter and also visit his website
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