Once, long ago, my parents were newly married and 26 years old. They lived in an apartment in Cleveland. Their first child was born on a dark day in February, and they gave her the prettiest name they could think of.
“Karen,” my parents answered when the priest at baptism asked, “What name do you give this child?”
Five decades later, the name has come to mean an entitled, racist white woman.
There are 1.1 million Karens in the United States. The name peaked in popularity around the mid-1960s but continued to be given regularly until pretty recently. I never loved my name but always thought it was O.K.—a bit boring and dated but still pretty. My younger brother is named Adam, so the worst thing I remember having to do with names growing up was other kids asking if my name was Eve.
Memes started circulating about suburban haircuts and women named Karen who demand to “speak to the manager.” Kinda funny.
In my wide circle of friends there are about a half-dozen Karens. One is a third-grade teacher in a low-income public school, one is a L.G.B.T. activist, one is a musician and choir director, one is a philosophy professor, and one is the diversity coordinator for my mid-sized Wisconsin city. All of these women are intelligent, good people. All of them are anti-racists, and not all of them are white. They are each creative and strong in different ways. And none of them named themselves.
A few years ago, Karen started to be used as shorthand for an annoying or overbearing woman. The comedian Dane Cook did a bit about the friend no one likes named Karen. Memes started circulating about suburban haircuts and women named Karen who demand to “speak to the manager.” Kinda funny.
But in the past year, the name Karen has moved from a meme to an epithet for an entitled person, often a racist. It is a powerful insult. When Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on a Black man who had objected to her taking a dog off-leash in Central Park, she was immediately identified by the New York Post as “Central Park ‘Karen.’” There is also “parking lot Karen,” a white woman who blocked a Black family from taking an open parking spot, and “coughing Karen,” who coughed on someone who asked her to wear a mask in a store. None of these women were actually named Karen, nor were the dozens of other examples I could find online, but Karen is now the word used to describe them, and “Karening” has even become a verb.
It’s my name. And because I am Catholic, it was given to me as part of the sacrament of baptism. It is part of me.
The power of the new meaning of Karen is such that if your name actually is Karen and you object to it being used to mean entitled, racist bitch, you are “being a Karen” and reinforcing the meaning.
My friends say, “Don’t worry about it, you’re not a Karen.” But the thing is, it’s my name. And because I am Catholic, it was given to me as part of the sacrament of baptism. It is part of me.
Pushing back against entitled and racist behavior is long overdue. When Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), she was weaponizing her privilege as a white woman. She knew that she could bring harm to him by mobilizing the police to “come to her aid.” Using the word Karen as shorthand for such racist behavior is tempting because it is immediately satisfying and cruelly funny. It encapsulates the disdain and contempt that this behavior deserves.
The generic term “Karen” shames people but also helps to preserve their anonymity.
But I do not think the term advances the cause of anti-racism. Calling the Kaylas, Amys, Joannes and Kathys whose racism is on display in Twitter videos the generic term “Karen” shames them but also helps to preserve their anonymity. It is also a term for which there is no true male equivalent, notwithstanding the half-hearted use of “Chad” for some entitled men.
Women know that names matter. We name our children as carefully and lovingly as we can. We struggle with whether to keep our maiden names when we get married. Most of us try not to mispronounce or misspell names that are unfamiliar to us. We respect the names and pronouns of others. But many of us seem to have forgotten that people really are named Karen, and the societal decision to take our name and change its meaning is uncomfortable and disorienting for us.
Earlier this summer I struck up a conversation with a woman I met while at a beach in rural Wisconsin. We were the only ones there, of a similar age and chatted easily, eventually exchanging names. Turns out she is an artist named Amy. I told her my name, and she paused and said: “Wow, really? I would never have guessed that.” It has become awkward just to introduce myself now.
But while I can’t control the (hopefully) temporary loss of my name, this experience of discomfort and disorientation also offers a chance for humility and reflection. Given my many privileges as an educated, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class white woman, I have not had daily experiences of being treated unfairly and feeling powerless. So instead of being ashamed to introduce myself as Karen, I try to think of my parents, who named me as best they could, and to recommit to being the strong, feminist, anti-racist and compassionate person they raised.