Wikipedia’s Definition of a Karen. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Younger

By Stephanie Younger • 

In late January of this year, 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, a white woman, claims that “Karen” memes are “misogynistic,” and make white women feel “marginalized,” and “invisible,” and as though their needs (translation: demanding labor from Black people, people of color and service workers) do not matter. The author laments of the mild inconveniences white women are met with during interactions with customer service workers, and relationships between [white] women, their [white] husbands and their [white] children. She eventually concludes her overall message by defending the “Karen’s” of the world as “[white] women [who are] trying to be seen and heard.” Weeks prior to reading that blog post, I read a quote 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. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. 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 in spite of facing racism, Black men still have the power to marginalize women, and also that in spite of facing misogyny, white women still have the power to marginalize Black folks. Black men and white women alike carry a long legacy of especially being complicit in the marginalization of Black women. So, here is my stance on “Karen” memes – they’re not sexist, nor are they racist against white women.

A few weeks ago, I saw “Karen” trending on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of users were debating whether the meme was sexist, or even racist against white women. I laughed and said, “I low key really wish I saw this trending on Twitter months ago, when I read that blog post about how this is misogynistic against white women.” One week after seeing the meme trending on Twitter, I read another essay, 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 author of 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, 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 for the sake of their own comfort. Teresa Klein, also known as “Cornerstore Caroline” has 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, I read an article written by a Black Nigerian journalist named Karen Attiah, entitled, “The ‘Karen’ memes and jokes aren’t sexist or racist. Let a Karen explain,” which was published by The Washington Post earlier this week.

“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.”

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

“Karen” memes are being smeared as offensive, by the same people who are complicit in 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.” The fact that the adults, in my school life earlier in my childhood, believed that I didn’t need as much nurturing or comfort as my white counterparts manifested itself, when my kindergarten teacher 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 elementary school, I frequently confided in my teacher when I was being mistreated by other students. In a previous article that was published on The Melanin Diary about the criminalization of Black girls, I wrote, “She would tell me, ‘They treat you that way because they like you.'” Many adults additionally expected me to “know more about adult topics,” as shown by that same teacher, who accused me of threatening to kill a white girl I didn’t get along with. I shared this occurrence in another previous essay where I wrote,

“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 and unlawful, all because I was a Black girl.”

Analysis: The Ways we Talk About Gender Stereotypes Do not Represent the Struggles we All Go Through

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.

Being the soft-spoken person I am stems from the fears that I internalized much earlier in my childhood, of being seen as “loud,” or “angry.” The fact that I live in a world where I am seen as such never fully registered with me, until I joined a robotics team when I was fourteen. A white woman alleged that I “jerked a computer out of a [white girl’s] hands” and “acted out.” In actuality, I asked why they were refusing to let me code, and why the white girl I was working with was receiving full credit for our shared work. These disparities are only the beginning of what costs Black girls of leadership and job opportunities, and are some of the root causes of arrests and incarceration.

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,” for speaking up about injustices we experience. We shouldn’t be smeared as “sexist” over our critiques of white women who weaponize their privilege against us, or get defensive when we hold them accountable for doing so. White women, before you get defensive when we hold you accountable for weaponizing your privilege, remember that Black girls are the ones who are being erased and marginalized. The way white women experience and talk about misogyny comes from a place of privilege.

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

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8 thoughts on “Unpacking White Feminism and “Karen”

  1. Hi,
    I have written yesterday about the problem of this.
    The use of “Karen” being the obvious current reference but also other terms: snowflakes, libtard, boomers, karens, janets, beckys, chads, etc… and how they’re actually counter-productive.

    “We’re living an age of fighting discriminatory stereotypes, which is about time, by using labels and name-calling.”

    While I hear where you’re coming from and the complete legitimacy of your frustration and revendication, I hope you’ll be open to hear my side.

    Women of colours, and particularly Black women, are on the worst receiving hand of racism and sexism without a doubt.

    Extremism are violent, and while women of colour absolutely need to be heard and defended on being victims of both extremisms, it does not alleviate the violence of experiencing just one of them.
    Sexism is detrimental to women, all women. Allowing it to a category of women will not help the other categories.

    While entitlement has to be called out, and furthermore when it’s racist, we can also observe that on all the list of labels used in current online conversations, the gendered ones are predominantly feminine, they are massively more used than their male counterpart, and more and more used to silence a woman opinion in no concrete context of white entitlement.
    The only fact of pointing it out is enough to be called a Karen.
    That is what is revealing sexism. In addition with all disproportionate harassment and name-calling that we already have associated to our gender (crazy, angry, bitchy, bossy, horse-face, frigid, slut, opinionated, trust me we got them too, you should see my dating app feed, everybody want a strong independent woman as long as that she stays in the criteria of what men established is acceptable: “speak your truth … but not too much”)

    If the original meme were not, Karen has become a slur (insinuation to insult or belittle) that misogynists are just too happy to use under cover of fighting racism.
    Unfortunately, sexism is still very present even in men, even those who think they vote correctly and fight the good fights.
    There is a cognitive dissonance between their belief system and their actual behaviour: subtil sexism.

    There is without a doubt a need of an advocacy more visible for the specific issues women of colour face, but let’s be clear if there is a black feminism, there no a white feminism because there is no issues for white women inherent to their skin colour.
    I will not experience the struggles you can face as a woman of colour, but unfortunately you will experience all the struggles I experience as a woman. Let’s not give ammunition to those who would be too eager to use it.

    Unfortunately the use of Karen can denounce racism and still be sexist, they’re not mutually exclusive and accepting one wrong because the other wrong is bigger doesn’t make it right.

    Eventually I think it would be fair if the term was exclusively used by black women in the context intended, you’re definitely in your right to find the ways who empower yourselves.

    1. Now you know how white men feel. The PC anti-white movement will come for us all. Somehow, years of oppression mean the only solution is to now subject people who had nothing to do with the oppression to punishment, ridicule and racism. Brilliant, isn’t it? While reading your post, I’m struck by how despite your correct intellectual stance you have to tap dance around the truth and make sure you make it known you “get it”. Something is wither wrong or it isn’t. “Karen” is wrong, period. Just because a black woman wants to be hateful and generalize doesn’t change it. This is another example of how this never ends. On and on we go, each claiming victimhood. Destroying each other, destroying ourselves. You ended by suggesting black women be allowed to use an obviously hateful term to generalize white women. You’re in the right here. Don’t be afraid to just say it without caveats. You can support the oppressed and back their causes without justifying their wrong behavior.

  2. This article has no diversity of thought – just words that others have said before. I have no problem with the Karen meme to be used to send a point about the interpersonal violence between white women and black people, but don’t pretend it’s social justice. Social justice is more nuanced than using a caricature to depict a point. If one is unable to see the sexism behind this meme (by looking at its historical roots that are sexist) than I’m going to think that you’re just naive or not yet able to understand the complexities of the collective human psyche in a patriarchal society.

  3. I’m currently 12 years old. The part about black girls being more “adult” is still true for me today at school. Teachers constantly have their own ideas. Thank you for actually bringing attention to it.

  4. I am a 72 yr old, white woman, raised in the South. I am trying to learn and understand so I can support the solution that we all seek.

  5. Not all poor white and insecure black men all if they do their dam jobs be as assertive looking for a job or earning a degree they will have more confidence in themselves I been dealing with a group for 20 could have had two damn degrees in all that time they just like some blacks looking for handouts and a pity party holding on to their bed wenches without their wives catching on screwing over people credit and money why don’t their wives put their foot down stop messing over the women put with their husbands they look foolish as hell

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