Every few hours, to take a break from work upstairs in my home office, I trot downstairs and make small talk with my wife. Lately, the small talk is about the latest embarrassing Internet posts and videos regarding her first name.
“Your name is all over the Internet,” I teased her the other day.
“I know. I see it, too,” she said. But she wasn’t sure why.
Her first name, you see, is Karen.
Or, as the Internet describes it through hashtags: #Karen, #Karenvideos, #Karening, #Karenpolice, #And KarenSnapped.
Her name has become a symbol, a pejorative, a way to demean and dismiss.
As in, “That’s so Karen,” or “OK, Karen,” with an accompanying eye roll.
The most-used definition of the word is an entitled white, middle-aged woman. She likes to complain to the manager, call the police on African American men, berate service workers and, well, generally act obnoxious with unwanted dramatic flair.
“I’m not like that,” my Karen said sadly.
I didn’t pay much attention to this trend until recently when it seemed to explode. A search on Google Trends shows #Karen usage is peaking during the quarantine. People are stressed and come in conflict with one another. Arguments ensue. Phone cameras come out. The worst minute of their life goes viral.
Some posts show furious white women coughing or even spitting on people as part of arguments about wearing masks at the entrances to big box stores.
Others show women complaining to camera phones about the hardships of their life in quarantine. (Hair and nail salons were closed.)
There are thousands of videos and images. My wife and I explored the trend. We learned that one of the earliest references to poking fun at Karens came in a 2005 Dane Cook comedy routine. “Every group has a Karen,” he explained, and nobody likes her.
Three years ago, a man wrote a post about his ex-wife Karen on reddit.com, and that’s when it took off. Karens now get caught shouting in restaurants, yelling at service workers and making pests of themselves. And you don’t need to be named Karen to act like a Karen.
In the absence of new movies from Hollywood, these daily Karen videos are often riveting.
“It snowballs,” says John Potter, associate professor of dispute resolution and conflict management at Southern Methodist University. He studies and teaches about social shaming in classes.
“It becomes a common part of our lives in a very short period of time because of the power of social media. It’s actually quite remarkable.”
As a problem solver, Potter says, he believes public shaming serves no good purpose. He calls it unproductive and adds, “The immediate response of shaming someone without having any kind of context is almost always detrimental. It’s not helpful.”
I’d tend to agree somewhat. But something happened on Memorial Day that changed my mind. Some people deserve to have the chaos they create come boomeranging back at them.
Central Park dog walker
On Memorial Day, when I trotted downstairs to give my daily #Karen video update, the top #Karen video was incredibly disturbing.
Only a few hours before, a white woman walking her dog in New York’s Central Park had been asked by a bird-watcher, an African American man, to put her dog on a leash to follow the rules so as not to scare off the birds.
We now know their names: Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, unrelated.
Amy Cooper told him she would call 911.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”
Christian Cooper, who did no such thing, politely told her to go ahead.
She called 911 and announced in a mock-terrified voice, “There’s a man, African American. … I’m being threatened. Please send the cops immediately.”
The video snowballed. The next day Amy Cooper apologized, but she lost her job. Christian Cooper went on national TV to tell what happened.
When I saw this unfold, I didn’t see Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in New York City. I saw ghosts in Mississippi. I saw Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman, and Emmett Till, a black teen.
Sixty-five years ago, Donham told police in Mississippi that Till, then 14, had grabbed her and made sexually suggestive remarks. After that, Till was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, shot in the head, tied with barbed wire and thrown into the river.
Donham’s husband and his half brother were charged with murder, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s death is considered the nation’s most infamous lynching.
Three years ago, the woman who accused Till changed her story. Donham, in her 80s, told a historian who asked about the sexual allegations she made against the teen, “That part is not true.”
This miscarriage of justice with a white woman falsely accusing a black person happened untold times. It’s a great paradox in the land of the free and the home of the brave. One reason these incidents kept occurring is that camera phones weren’t around. With no social media, there’s no #CarolynBryantDonham.
‘Perfect storm for exposure’
I dug a little deeper into the #Karen phenomenon and learned that for some people of color the term goes well beyond women who hoard toilet paper. Some use the term to describe suburban white women who call the police on black people engaged in legal and acceptable behavior.
It’s also used as a putdown of white people who talk down to black, Asian or Hispanic service workers.
“People out of anger and frustration are leaning on ‘social shaming,’” Dr. Teresa L. Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist in Dallas, said in an interview.
“There’s a great degree of micro-aggression and outward racism in our society. Social media and cellphone cameras help to bring all these out to light. … It’s all coming to the perfect storm for exposure.”
She added: “And if it takes social shaming that gets someone’s attention because they don’t like social shaming, that’s a good place to start.
“Because if you don’t like social shaming, you damn sure don’t like racism — and you doggone don’t like to be discriminated against. [You don’t like] to be singled out just because someone has a long-standing history and perception of this reinforced conditioning that you are a danger.”
“What you’re saying,” I asked, “is social shaming is good for the process because it’s corrective in some instances?”
“Right,” she said.
“It reveals,” I said. “Where before it might be covered up, now it’s showing everybody what’s going on in our world.”
“Yes,” the psychologist said. “You may disagree but that’s my perspective.”
These little vignettes of somebody’s worst minute of their life do get you thinking, ideally in a smart, life-affirming way.