No, Karen is not the equivalent of the N-word for white women – this isn’t a debate worth having

At its core, this is just a harmless meme, created in response to behaviour that we all recognise as terrible

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 08 April 2020 14:24 BST
Karen has come to represent an entitled, usually racist, white woman with all the basic tendencies that come along with such traits, writes Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Karen has come to represent an entitled, usually racist, white woman with all the basic tendencies that come along with such traits, writes Kuba Shand-Baptiste

If ever there’s been any confusion about the fact that white women do not like to be reminded that they are, in fact, white women, look no further than the ridiculous “Is Karen a slur?” debate on social media.

"Karen" has come to represent an entitled, usually racist, white woman with all the basic tendencies that come along with such traits: calling the manager on waiters who speak to each other in “foreign” languages; crossing the road to avoid certain people from certain backgrounds; refusing to let residents of blocks of flats enter their own buildings, for fear of trespassing.

Sparked by a strangely-timed poll posted by a Twitter account called “Friends of Journalism”, in some circles, the question over the use of the term felt almost as big a question as “should I stop going my daily lockdown jog?”

The post reads: “The term ‘Karen’ is being used as a sexist and racist slur. Considering this is an equivalent of the N-word for white women, should it be banned on Twitter?”

At the time of writing, over 96 per cent of those who took the poll have voted no, most likely retrospectively in response to the absurdity of the wider debate itself. Even still, it didn’t take much to get a certain cohort to jump on the bandwagon, bizarrely labelling the Karen moniker as evidence of reverse racism.

Let me just say that a little clearer: Karen is not equivalent to the “N-word for white women”. In fact, there is no version of a word with the weight of centuries of violent, systemic racism behind it that also somehow solely references the one group of women who have never faced such prejudice.

Which perhaps explains why some prominent white feminist writers and were so quick to reframe the trend – which has its roots in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – as an affront to all women, especially the “suburban” ones. Much easier to avoid criticism for making this about whiteness, even if that's exactly what is happening, you see.

Controversial feminist writer Julie Bindel, was the first to jump on the "this hurts all women" bandwagon over the weekend, asking: “Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?”

To some, the answer was a resounding yes. Forget about what it used to mean, Karen was now the classist, sexist arsenal of men. And it was a trend women of colour had gleefully picked up without stopping to think of the consequences – white women's feelings.

As Bindel reminded her audience of over 45k followers earlier this week: “Women of colour do not have a ‘get out of jail free’ card on classism”. Under this framing, those misguided women of colour could be the problem too. Except, proof of the assumed intention behind the so-called slur was and always has been incredibly thin.

Another writer, Hadley Freeman, offered a recent column by Helen Lewis for The Atlantic as evidence, suggesting that the name itself denotes a late 40-something “suburban comedy housewife” and is “deliberately and entirely specific and reductive – ageist, sexist and classist”.

It seems like a logical conclusion to arrive at: Generic name commonly associated with white women and sometimes, middle-aged white women in the suburbs, can feel derogatory to those who take it personally. That said, I do accept that the popularity of the meme when it concerns feminine names in particular, does stem, in part, from sexism. However, getting to the Karen equals discrimination conclusion requires an enormous leap: Entirely ignoring the racist behaviours the nickname originally intended to personify.

We've seen such behaviour manifest in response to shameless actions by mostly – but not exclusively – American Karens: Your "BBQ Becky"s, who deliberately antagonise and target black people for being outside, your "Corner Store Carolines", who accuse nine-year-old black children of assault for no reason (even if the woman in this instance apologised and said she harboured no racist feelings).

It would be easy to then argue that AAVE origins aside, in the UK, Karen has entirely different connotations. Except, those issues exist here too. In fact, the entire point of opting for names like Karen or Becky or Caroline or Susan, is because it punches up at a nondescript, not too rich, not too poor, type of woman. She is the embodiment of the “standard” in that way most women of colour have never been allowed to be. An everywoman. Or an “average Joe”, which, it apparently bears stressing, is not the white, male equivalent of the n-word.

BBQ Becky's 911 calls released by police

When I hear the names Karen or Becky used in a certain context, the treatment I've received at the hands of a number of racist white women comes to mind. She’s the woman who barges into you on the street (before corona, of course) because she expects you to move first. She is Kelechi Okafor's Sally in HR, who can’t quite pronounce your "ethnic" name. She is the shop floor manager who follows the black and brown folk around as they innocently browse.

Were this not reality, the Karen debacle would be a pretty strong parody of internet culture in... well, any year, really. Wherein the very whiff of attempts to subvert the status quo with playful nicknames coined by women of colour is always enough to elicit accusations of “reverse racism”. That this is happening during a pandemic is all the more bewildering.

In the never-ending saga of ridiculous hills to die on, this one feels particularly silly. In fact, it feels conceited, telling women of colour by the thousands: You don’t know what real feminism is, what real sexism is, what being a woman is. And I’m here to school you.

At its core, Karen, like Sally, Deborah, or whatever name comes next, is just a harmless meme, created in response to behaviour that we all recognise as terrible. Just like gammon, or “ok boomer”, this joke is about as serious as a TikTok dance challenge. So please, let’s stop being Karens about it, ok?

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