The year of Karen: how a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism

There was no direct connection beyond coincidence between the Central Park Karen incident in New York City and the police murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The period in the pandemic has been elastic and confusing, and reports of each incident were not released immediately, but the two events occurred on Memorial Day Monday, May 25.
Related: Sisters in Hate Review: Hard but important reading on the rise of racist America
The video footage of the two incidents emerged as a sort of digital diptych depicting the state of racism - and whiteness - in America in 2020 during the weird, violent summer of coronavirus and civil unrest.
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On the one hand, Floyd was slowly and mercilessly suffocated under the knee of white male cop Derek Chauvin, a brutal portrait of the relentless indifference to black life that defines American policing. On the flip side, 40-year-old white investment manager and scofflaw dog owner, Amy Cooper, was an avatar for the respected white civilian who demands that violence be used on her behalf because a black man dared expect the rules for comply with the public space.
The ghost of Karen continued as protests against Black Lives Matter and civil unrest spread across the country after Floyd's murder and the reckoning of racism upset institutions and toppled careers and statues. More than just an amusing meme, Karen allowed a new kind of discourse on racism to gain credibility in the US.
The Karen meme says they are conscious actors. You are complicit
Apryl Williams
"We as a culture have held this stance that white women are more virtuous and do not participate in perpetuating racism," said Apryl Williams, professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan. "They just go along with it, but they are not conscious actors. The Karen meme says, no, they are conscious actors. These are deliberate acts. They are complicit. And I think that's why it hits a nerve with people."
Amy Cooper's Karen status was cemented when she called the police on Christian Cooper, a 57-year-old black bird watcher, after asking her to keep her dog on a leash in New York's Central Park. Cooper was not content with falsely claiming that “an African American” is “threatening me and my dog” twice and played for the 911 driver. He changed the register of her voice to one of distress and panic as she cried, “I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble. Please send the police immediately. "
Through this performance, Amy Cooper took on the cloak of an American archetype: the white woman who arms her vulnerability to exacting violence against a black man. In the story, she is Carolyn Bryant, the adult white woman whose complaint about a 14-year-old Emmett Till led to his torture and murder by racist white adults. In literature, she's Scarlett O’Hara, who sends her husband to a KKK lynch party, or Mayella Ewell, who testifies under oath that a black man who helped her raped her. In 2020 she is simply Karen.
Williams defines a Karen as a "white woman who monitors and patrols black people in public spaces and then calls the police for random, non-illegal violations." She has been studying memes about Karen and her predecessors (BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, Pool Patrol Paula, etc.) for several years. In the magazine Social Media and Society she traces Karen's historical ancestry and campaigns for her social significance.
"In the past, black bodies in public spaces were controlled through threats of violence, lynching, and routine aimed at racist terrorism that dictated who blacks could talk to, where they could live, and what spaces they could exist in," she writes. "At present, the routine act of calling the police to black people in public places extends this historic practice of regulating black bodies in order to maintain the order of white supremacists."
A man recites poetry at a memorial in honor of George Floyd at the location where he was taken into custody in Minneapolis. Photo: Lucas Jackson / Reuters
According to Williams, "Becky" or "BBQ Becky" - the name of a white woman who called police to a group of blacks about using a charcoal grill in Oakland, California - was the most common nickname for this type of white woman prior to the coronavirus Pandemic when Karen took off. But the name doesn't matter as much as what it means. "It's a cultural abbreviation and is interchangeable with any number of names," Williams said. “If my friend called me and said,“ I had an incident with a woman at the bank today and it was a Susan, ”she wouldn't have to say anything else. I would say,“ What did Susan do? ”And I already know , what's coming.
"This is a continuation of a historical legacy," she added. “We can trace it back to the Reconstruction era, when vigilante groups gathered to patrol freed slaves ... These Karens and Beckys still serve as such extra-legal patrols. They are actually not part of the law, but they act as enforcers. They extend legal authority, although they do not have any legal authority. "
To live in the United States is to witness the passage of time through the litany of names of blacks who have been murdered or beaten by the state. In my own life, I can set a course from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo to Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and George Floyd.
Much of the public's response to the Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore uprisings has centered on broad systemic racism and reform. Police cameras were sold as a panacea. Implicit bias provided both an explanation and a justification for actions that still felt like simple old-fashioned racism to those affected. It is not intended, the story went; Every white man must still be granted the benefit of the doubt, the assumption of perpetual racist innocence.
But as Karen's summer began it became clear that Americans of color, and blacks in particular, were no longer willing to accept the alibi offered by unconscious prejudice. Among the first to tear down the band aid was Glee actress Samantha Ware, who responded to former associate Lea Michele's platitudes about Floyd's murder and recalled how the star had treated her: "Remember, as you are made my first tv gig a living hell?!?! 'Cause I'll never forget "
Soon, social media feeds were replenished with evidence of abuse by black people, not so much #MeToo as #YouToo. You too were racist, the moment of reckoning warned, and your co-workers and subordinates will no longer keep your secrets to you.
It would be stupid to relate the entire 2020 race bill to the power of the Karen memes, but it would also be stupid to dismiss their influence. Williams compares it to that of the Black Press. Events that would otherwise be ignored - a white San Francisco woman calling the police about a man writing "Black Lives Matter" on his building, for example - became national food news as soon as they fit Karen's memetic framework.
Related: White Clicivism: Why Did Some Americans Wake Up Online But Not In Real Life?
"Becky and Karen memes serve an important social function," Williams writes. “They are restoring agency to black communities by allowing them to exercise some form of justice against perpetrators. In a subversion and reversal of the power dynamic, the creators of black memes monitor the supremacy of whites and expressly demand consequences. "
Of course, any attempt by blacks to assert power against white supremacy is met with an immediate backlash, and the backlash against Karen memes was practically predetermined. Complaints about Karen being sexist were particularly noteworthy because they did a good job of recreating the Karen dynamic. Some white women were presented with evidence of their own agency and complicity and responded by reaffirming their victim.
What I found particularly useful about Karen memes is the way they have given willing white women a tool to evaluate their own behavior and, if they want, improve it. My own mother, who is white, has on rare occasions exhibited behaviors that bordered on the Karen breed. That summer, she first acknowledged some of these Karen tendencies towards me and expressed her intention not to act like that again - a conversation I'm not sure we would have had the meme.
Recalling similar conversations with white friends, Williams offered three simple rules for not being Karen. First, acknowledge the privilege and history of a white woman in this society. Second, avoid calling the police about people of color unless someone is in imminent danger of harm. And three: "Understand that it's not always about you, period. People aren't out to catch you for the most part, people aren't trying to hurt you or damage your property or make you feel uncomfortable," she said. "You're not that special, Karen. You are not that special. "
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