The ‘Karen’ meme is everywhere — and isn’t racist or sexist


The Karen meme is the latest meme to take Twitter by storm following the likes of “Ok Boomer,” “BBQ Becky” and “Cornerstore Caroline.” But much like everything on Twitter, it has led to controversy, think pieces and some outrageous hot takes.

The meme typically refers to a woman, usually white, who is seen as demanding and privileged. A “let me talk to your manager” person who believes she is entitled to something and always has to get her way. If you need a mental image, think of Kate Gosselin from the show “Kate Plus 8.”

“The Karen meme is used to reference a middle-class white woman who feels entitled to special treatment,” said Jacqueline Arcy, assistant professor of new media at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. “She is depicted as the type of person that asks to ‘speak to a manager’ when she is dissatisfied with her service, often provided by working-class people of color. A defining feature of a ‘Karen’ is that she is oblivious to her white privilege.”

According to the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, a “young Karen likely would have been the class snitch, tattling on her classmates to the teacher to get them in trouble.” 

While it can be difficult to trace a meme back to its original source, the thought is that it first originated on Reddit and it was from a man who was upset at his ex-wife for taking his children away. This resulted in a high school student creating a subreddit about this man’s anecdotes.

Vox managed to track down the subreddit’s creator, karmacop97, who said it was just a way to “compile the lore behind this guy’s relationship.” When the original user deactivated his account, the subreddit took on a life of its own. It made its way around the Internet before hitting its apex on Twitter.

The controversy surrounding the meme happened when Julie Bindel, a U.K. journalist and author, posted on her Twitter account the question, “Does anyone think else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman hating and based on class prejudice?”

This led to an avalanche of responses on Twitter with the majority saying in no way can calling someone a “Karen” be equivalent to a slur. Whether related to the responses or not, Bindel has since deleted her account. 

“The term ‘Karen’ is not equivalent to a racial slur because it is not propped up by a system of racism against white people,” Arcy said. “Categorizing the ‘Karen’ meme as a slur is misleading because it obscures the racial discrimination the meme was designed to call out.”

The attempt to equate it anywhere near equivalent to a slur was always going to backfire. But what about the claims that it’s sexist because it particularly targets women?

“As a woman, I don’t really find it sexist, because it’s not aimed at all women,” said Twitter user Tara Darcy. “I know I don’t act like that so it doesn’t offend me. In my opinion, if you’re offended it’s probably because you act like that.”

Arcy also added, “its purpose is not to oppress white women, but to identify the way they oppress others.”

A theme that the meme puts into focus is the difference between those with power and those without and how it is wielded, particularly in the service industry. The coronavirus has deemed service and retail workers essential and they are the ones having to deal with disgruntled customers including “Karens.”

“I have worked in several customer service jobs, one being Starbucks which is Karen Central, Darcy said. “It’s definitely a stereotype for a reason. There’s definitely a problem in our society about respecting customer service workers. I feel like it is more evident than ever due to what we see going on with the coronavirus.”

At the end of the day, what this comes down to is people taking something that was supposed to be funny and making a mountain of a molehill. We’ve all dealt with our fair share of Karens and the meme is a way to make light of it and meet other people who may have gone through something similar. 

“I don’t think it’s demeaning, I’ve never thought so deep about it,” said Marianna Vazquez, a student at Governor’s State University. “I just thought it was funny. I only consider Karens as the rude ladies we get at work. I don’t think it was ever meant to be taken that serious.”

As far it being a racial slur, that’s ludicrous. People feel uncomfortable when forced to look at their own privilege or when they aren’t catered to. “Ok Boomer” was born out of the countless articles blaming millennials for every wrong thing happening in this country. That generation got tired of it so they made up that phrase which the older generation immediately took offense upon.

Comedian John Mulaney said it best: “If you’re comparing the badness of two words and you won’t even say one of them… that’s the worse word!”

If you can say Karen but can’t say the racial slur you’re trying to compare it to, in many ways, you’ve rendered your argument moot.