The first time I heard the pejorative term “Karen” was when my brother described the segregation of my mother’s graduation party from Family Nurse Practitioner school. Other than my mother, there was a white section and a Black section, and they didn’t intermingle. My brother pointed at a woman with an asymmetrical bob and chunky blonde highlights. That’s her: a Karen. That was 2018.
Since then, I’ve encountered Karens that come in all forms with more affective behavior. In Roche Bros., a Karen followed me around the store and complained that she was unable to see me because I was bundled up (like every other customer), another Karen went into a tizzy full of white tears and excluded me from class emails after I told her that saying the n-word in an art history class was highly inappropriate, the list goes on. Nationally, Karens are taking over, as evident in social media: causing scenes in grocery stores, calling the cops on Black folk enjoying themselves in the park, or slamming cashiers when they don’t get their way.
So, what is Karen? It is easier to define the phenomenon by what it is not: a racialized other or a male. Karen is the antithesis/foil of Black women: why do “thou shall not try me” or books like “Eloquent Rage” exist? It’s because women of color, specifically Black women, often can’t embrace their anger. It isn’t safe. For far too long, sass has been used to express feelings and be palatable enough to be heard. Karens have the luxury to be wild and free. I posed the question to Szu-Chieh Yun, a Boston-based, Taiwanese-American painter and sculptor, who explores the Karen phenomenon in her work: if there’s a Karen, why isn’t there a Kevin? She wrote to me back on March 8 at 10:34 pm. “I think because Karen exists to stop people from thinking about Kevin… you’re right. LikeBarbie and Ken.” It distracts from the actual force that Karen is a projection of internalized patriarchal dominance.