We Need To Cool The "Karen" Memes Because They Represent More Than Just A Stereotype
"Karen" is much more than a meme — the term represents white women asserting their privilege and using their power at the expense of others.
In the middle of an international pandemic, following predictions of extreme worldwide global poverty, and at the height of one of the largest Black political movements the world has ever seen, a global pizza franchise used their influence and resources to stand in solidarity with women named "Karen". This comes after a woman who recorded herself refusing to wearing a mask was condemned by members of the public as the "Australian Karen".
In a strange and questionable display, this pizza franchise encouraged "all mask wearing, law-abiding Karens" to get in contact with them for some free pizza — highlighting that it was a "tough time to be a Karen". The advertisement was met with immense public backlash, with Domino's New Zealand later apologising and removing the post. It's worth noting that the "Karen" PR stunt is still live on the Domino's Australia Facebook page.
This is very problematic for two reasons.
The first, put very simply, is that it is not a tough time to be a "Karen". "Karens" are not vilified. "Karens" are not dangerously stereotyped. "Karens" do not experience systemic discrimination. "Karens" are not more likely to be targeted by the police at a higher rate or die in custody.
The second problem is that the use of "Karen" in this context blatantly disregards the origins and seriousness of this term. It rewrites the narrative and, once again, dilutes racist experiences.
We need to remember that "Karen" is more than someone who doesn’t want to wear a mask, nor is she just someone with a bob cut who wants to speak to the manager. "Karens" uphold and demonstrate white supremacy in a way that appears noble, innocent and virtuous.
So, what exactly is a "Karen"?
Dictionary.com defines "Karen" as "a mocking slang term for an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman". But, this doesn't quite cut it.
The term "Karen" was created in response to the many examples of white women asserting their privilege at the expense of others — like calling the cops on Black people.
"Karen" represents the weaponisation of a systemically dysfunctional and racist system worldwide, and the weaponisation of whiteness. Despite its recent increase in use, "Karen" is not a new term. The term has historical ties and has recently been popularized on social media, predominately in the United States.
Using the term "Karen" recognises the weaponisation of whiteness and is an act of resistance to behaviours that endanger lives. "Karen" puts a name to white fragility and the exertion of control over people of colour, and is a satirical way to gain solidarity and power over injustice.
But, by making light of the term, we overlook the damaging impact the real "Karens" have had and will continue to have on people of colour.
In Australia, the weaponisation of whiteness can be seen through the white-washing of Aboriginal history, tax-payer funded jobs that protect offensive colonial statues, and arresting a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy for receiving a stolen chocolate, worth 70 cents.
Not convinced? Let's take a look at some more "Karen-like" behaviours in Australia and reflect on their damaging impacts.
In March 2018, breakfast TV show Sunrise aired a segment featuring three white people — Sunrise host Samantha Armytage and commentators Ben Davis and Prue MacSween — discussing the Stolen Generation.
For those that don't know, the Stolen Generation refers to the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities as a result of past government policies. This predominantly took place between 1896 and 1969 (although removals also happened before and after this period), with the Bringing Them Home report estimating that as many as one in three children were stolen from their families.
These policies were an act of genocide that have had — and continue to have — devastating impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities. You can hear some of the stories of survivors of the Stolen Generation on the Healing Foundation website.
Considering that, Sunrise still enabled this discussion between three white people to occur — even though they had little knowledge, no lived experience and no right to speak on the manner. The result? MacSween suggesting on national television that there should be a second Stolen Generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In her own words, "Just like the first Stolen Generation where a lot of children were taken because it was for their wellbeing, we need to do it again, perhaps."
Sunrise was later found to have breached the TV industry code of practice by the Australian Communications and Media authority, who said that the segment was premised on a factual inaccuracy and proved "serious contempt on the basis of race."
In December 2019, a video recorded by Robby Wirramanda, which was later shared to Twitter by a family member where it went viral, shows a woman — coincidentally named Karen — trying to tear down an Aboriginal flag that was being flown on Wirramanda's property. The pair then go on to question Wirramanda's Aboriginality, before telling him to "Go and live in your f*****g humpy down the river."
Not only is questioning someone's Aboriginality deeply offensive and problematic, but it suggests that Aboriginality can be based on appearance and reduced to a quantifiable measure. Aboriginal comedian and actor, Steven Oliver, explains this perfectly in his powerful response to racism, which was performed as a poetry slam at the 2015 NAIDOC Awards.
And lastly, in July 2020 a woman was dubbed the "Australian Karen" after a video of her went viral when she refused to wear a mask during COVID-19 restrictions upon entry at a Bunnings store.
If this particular woman was a person of colour, we could only imagine the backlash she would have received. She wouldn't have had airtime on national television and she wouldn't have been protected by her whiteness. She would have been condemned as a "mad" woman and a "troublemaker" as many women in the Aboriginal community are. She probably would have been told that infamous line so many Aboriginal people are familiar with — just get over it.
"Karen" is much more than a meme.
If brands are considering standing solidarity with anyone, it should be with people who are genuinely marginalised — and it should be for the right reasons without the performative activism.
Elevate stories and voices that are not heard. Use your privilege to create space for people who are otherwise ignored, silenced or diluted by mainstream media. Or perhaps you could consider donating to the people campaigning for the families of Walker, Tanya Day and David Dungay Junior, just three of the over 400 Aboriginal people who have died in police custody.
At the very least, you should consider using your platform to share their stories.