Unpacking “Karen” and White Feminism

By Stephanie Younger • 

In late January, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed during my break in between college lectures when I came across a blog post, in which the author claims that referring to a white woman as a “Karen” is “misogynistic,” make white women feel “invisible,” “marginalized, wondering when our needs will matter.” (In other words: their “needs,” as in the burdens white women demand at the expense of Black lives). The author of this blog post laments of the mild inconveniences white women are met with during interactions with workers, and their mild inconveniences that come with relationships with their [white] husbands and their [white] children, and concludes her message by suggesting that the “Karen’s” of the world are “[white] women [who are] trying to be seen and heard [but are] the butt of everyone’s joke.” I then was reminded of a quote I had read—weeks prior to seeing the blog post—from Black feminist author and poet bell hooks, who wrote in her 1984 book entitled, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.”

“White women and Black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of Black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups…As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.”

– bell hooks’ “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” (1984)

bell hooks is absolutely right that white women still have the power to marginalize Black folks and that Black men still have the power to marginalize women. Black men and white women alike carry a long legacy of especially being complicit in the marginalization of Black women. In this article, we’ll be focusing on how white women oppress Black folks, so here is my stance on “Karen” memes – they’re not sexist, nor are they racist against white women.

A few weeks ago, journalist Julie Bindel asked on Twitter, “Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman hating and based on class prejudice?” Hundreds of thousands of users were debating whether it was sexist, or even racist against white women. I laughed and said, “I really wish I saw this trending months ago when I read that blog post.” The week after, an essay addressing this topic was published on The Guardian, authored by another white woman who views valid criticisms of white women’s entitlement and racism as “sexist.” Similar to the blog post that I read months earlier, the this article is apathetic to and defends white women’s interest of self-preservation at the expense of Black lives.

When I talk about self-preservation at the expense of Black lives, take into account the amount of white women, notably those who have gone viral for endangering Black lives, by calling the police on Black children. Teresa Klein, also known as “Cornerstore Caroline,” called the police on a 9-year-old Black boy and accused him of groping her, when he accidentally brushed his backpack against her. Alison Ettel, also known as Permit Patty,” has called the police on an 8-year-old Black girl who was selling water on a hot day.

Most recently, Karen Attiah, a Nigerian journalist, cited how white womens’ weaponization of the state has led to the lynching of Emmett Till. In her article that was published on The Washington Post earlier this week, Attiah wrote,

“In America, white women are often believed and protected at all costs, even at the expense of black lives. In 1955, it was a white woman who falsely accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her in Mississippi, which led to him being brutally beaten and killed. Fast-forward to recent years and we still learn about black people being arrested or assaulted because a white woman called the police unnecessarily.”

“The ‘Karen’ memes and jokes aren’t sexist or racist. Let a Karen explain,” Karen Attiah for The Washington Post

This discourse surrounding “Karen” is often perceived as offensive, while defending the actions of those who perpetuate adultification of Black children as a whole, and especially Black girls. According to a Georgetown Law study, adults believe Black girls (as young as age five) are in need of “less nurturing, protection, support and comfort,” are “more independent,” and “know more about adult topics” than white girls. To put this in perspective, adults often saw me as an “angry Black woman” at a very young age, and therefore believed that I was “less innocent and more adult-like.” Many adults believed that I didn’t need as much nurturing or comfort as my white counterparts, including my kindergarten teacher, who brought me to the principal’s office for having a panic attack during a storm at school. Throughout elementary school, many of the those I once looked up to as “mentors” believed that I didn’t fit the standard of a child who needed adequate protection and support, but someone who was “more independent.” In an article I wrote in 2018 about the criminalization of Black girls, I mentioned that many teachers would say, “They treat you that way because they want to be your friend,” when I frequently confided in them when I was being mistreated by other students. In an essay I wrote in February, I mention that same teacher, who has shown that she expected me to “know more about adult topics,” when she accused me of threatening to kill a white girl I didn’t get along with.

“In the fourth grade, two teachers went behind my back and lied to my homeroom teacher, by saying that I told a white girl, “You are so dead.”…Even though 9-year-olds don’t typically know about death threats, the teachers still expected me to be engaged in something so violent because I was a Black girl.”

“Analysis: How Gender Stereotypes Intersect with Anti-Black Racism” by Stephanie Younger

I never spoke of what happened in the fourth grade until I was fifteen. I never thought much of what happened when I was five until recently. However, I began to realize that adults saw me as “less innocent and more adult-like,” after I turned twelve, when they openly assumed that I was older than I was on a regular basis. In hindsight, these assumptions made me very insecure, but I couldn’t identify why adults saw me that way, despite standing at roughly five feet tall at the time and being a very late bloomer.

“Karen” represents white women who direct their violence towards Black people while weaponizing their womanhood to mitigate their actions, but we should be referring to this as white violence. While white women have the privilege of simply being called a “Karen” for enforcing oppression against marginalized people, Black women and girls are dismissed as “angry,” “aggressive” and “confrontational” when we speak up about the injustices that we experience. Black people, especially Black women are not sexist for calling out white women who weaponize their privilege against us. We must be mindful of the fact that the way white women experience and talk about misogyny comes from a place of privilege. To white women who get defensive when we call you out for weaponizing your privilege, remember that Black girls are the ones who are being erased and marginalized.

Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old who advocates for womanism and the abolition of youth prisons.