August 10, 2020

On Being, and Not Being, a “Karen”

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

My name has become a trendy insult.

“Karen” has become a shortcut for an entitled, middle-aged white woman who is prone to throwing a fit. Sometimes it is because she doesn’t think she has to follow rules, particularly now with mask restrictions becoming more common. Paradoxically, she also contacts authorities to report what she views as others’ transgressions, particularly if they are persons of color.

While the use of my name to describe this insufferable character is not new (apparently it is at least three years old), it has proliferated over the past few months both in social and traditional media. A proposed San Francisco law to charge people who call the police for racially motivated reasons is called the CAREN Act. You can find regular updates on #KarensGoneWild and numerous other Twitter hashtags.

This whole “Karen” thing hits pretty close to home, not because I embody this character or fear appearing as a #Karen in social media, but for other obvious reasons. Whatever you might think about this meme, it gives us an opportunity to explore several sociological issues.

Names are historically specific; when I was born, Karen was a very popular name. According to this fun web tool from the Social Security Administration (SSA), Karen peaked in 1965 as the third most popular girl’s name. It fell out of the top ten by the time I was born, but it was still in the top twenty.

There were always other girls named Karen when I was growing up; in one of my high school classes of about 25 students there were four girls named Karen—and two of them even had the same last name! (Since it was a Spanish class we got to choose other names in Spanish, so that made things a lot less confusing.)

Fewer and fewer babies have been named Karen since its heyday; by 1980, the name fell out of the top 50, and by 2018 (the last year for which the SSA site has data), Karen ranked 635. The most recent top baby names were very rare for children when I was growing up. Emma, the most popular in 2018, wasn’t even in the top 400 during my childhood. This and other popular names would have been perceived as a name for an older person; by coincidence, one of my great-grandmothers was named Emma.

If names are cyclical, a name that was very popular decades ago is much more likely to reference a middle-aged person. We might further study why names become more popular at any given time than others, the cultural meanings parents attribute to them when choosing names for their babies, and how these meanings change over time.

Names can also be connected with racial discrimination. It is highly unlikely that I will experience anything except for occasional jokes about my name’s newfound infamy. My economic well being is unlikely to be affected by the meme, nor is my likelihood of securing housing or any other central resource.

By contrast, a 2004 study conducted by scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found in a field experiment that job applicants with names that are more common among African Americans are half as likely to be called in for interviews. According to the NBER:

In total, the authors responded to more than 1,300 employment ads in the sales, administrative support, clerical, and customer services job categories, sending out nearly 5,000 resumes. The ads covered a large spectrum of job quality, from cashier work at retail establishments and clerical work in a mailroom to office and sales management positions.

The results indicate large racial differences in callback rates to a phone line with a voice mailbox attached and a message recorded by someone of the appropriate race and gender. Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This would suggest either employer prejudice or employer perception that race signals lower productivity.

A study in 2016 found similar results, while a 2017 study found nuances in the perception of the education level based on certain names. A 2012 Housing and Urban Development report found similar patterns of discrimination in housing. Page xviii of the report’s executive summary notes that, “Black and Asian renters whose race is readily identifiable based on name and speech are significantly more likely to be denied an appointment than minorities perceived to be white.”

It may be tempting to think, “Well, people should just name their kids ‘white’ sounding names,” but that does nothing to address the underlying problem of discrimination, which does not end with hearing someone’s name.

The “Karen” meme also highlights the issue of gender and privilege. There has been a debate about whether the Karen meme is sexist, as it puts the spotlight on women’s behavior and ignores men’s. Refusing to wear masks during the pandemic, demanding that service workers comply with their wishes, and calling the police for others’ non-criminal activities are not necessarily female-dominated activities. Yet there is no male equivalent to the Karen meme.

However, this meme highlights some of the privileges that white women—even white working-class women—may enjoy that other people might not. Demanding high levels of service might lead to a viral video, but probably not to an arrest. By contrast, people seem to call the police to report persons of color for far less transgressive behavior (such as the Starbucks incident when police were called when African American men sat down before ordering).

Calling the police to report a perceived or made-up threat is something one is unlikely to do if you fear interactions with police based on a history of police brutality against friends, family, and neighbors. Even feeling like police will come to one’s aid is something many people don’t regularly experience. After the May 2020 Central Park incident, when a woman was caught on video telling a man who asked her to leash her dog that she would call the police and claim an African American man was threatening her, it took weeks before she was charged with filing a false police report, and that was only after the video sparked outrage nationwide.

I can’t say I like that my name has come to signify what it has come to mean, but the costs to me and other people named Karen will likely be negligible. I feel uneasy about my name being a shortcut to mean a self-centered racist. But maybe it is okay for people who may who take their status for granted to be asked to pay attention, and even called out by name.


There's an interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly that became available today called "The Karen War Will Never End".

I hope the war will end quickly!

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