The idea that Karenism is on the rise simply isn’t true. It’s always been here, but like other ugly and uncomfortable things bubbling up this extraordinary year, the #karen behavior is being called out in force.
We can thank TikTok, Facebook, and other social media platforms for the in-your-face awareness that minorities and anyone involved in customer service has been dealing with for years.
We know “Karen” as the woman the internet identifies as a middle-aged, white, whiney, racist, cry baby (sadly, there are Brads and Larrys, too). Above all, entitled Karen is genuinely appalled when she is challenged by someone she deems lesser-than herself in some way.
Every server and bartender knows her all too well. So does the bagger at Whole Foods and the secretary at her child’s school. Managers duck her phone calls and employees at Target’s customer service desk take a deep breath when they spot her standing impatiently in line.
As difficult as Karens are, we need them. We need to see what all the fuss is about so we can search our souls and learn how not to be. We need to recognize Karenism so we too can call out unacceptable behavior when appropriate. Sure, it takes guts to stand up to a Karen in action, but it’s mighty necessary and a way to put our own privilege to use for good.
That means we have to lose the MYOB mindset when witnessing injustice or seeing a Karen being bitchy to someone who has no means to satisfy her insatiable superiority complex. Think of it as adult bullying on steroids.
The internet shows that Karen isn’t the only woman’s name assigned to a series of unjust behaviors.
André Brock, a professor at Georgia Tech, studies race and the internet and has also done extensive research on Black Twitter. Brock, in an interview for the May 30 CNN story, “How Karen became a meme, and what real-life Karens think about it,” said: “Miss Ann is one example, from the time of slavery. It was a name Black slaves would use specifically to refer to white women who wanted to exert power over them – power that they didn’t actually have.”
And what about Beyonce’s jolting “You better call Becky with the good hair” lyric from her album “Lemonade” in 2016? It’s horrible, but from the days of slavery to the 2020 Central Park dog-walker who called the police on a Black birdwatcher, a rose by any other name still stinks.
Antisemitism aside, most of my experience with Karenism is limited to my years in the restaurant world. One classic story is the time I was serving a table of eight women who all ordered the same salad and all drank water with extra lemon, with one insisting on separate checks.
“I’ll do the math for you,” she said, “and we don’t want the automatic gratuity added on.”
Tapping her nails on the table, she literally tossed a credit card at me and the other seven women followed suit, only nicely. I explained it would take several minutes to run eight credit cards in the middle of a busy lunch, and she responded, “How hard can it be?”
I ignored her, and the host ran the credit cards while I took care of my other tables. I was delighted he added the mandatory 18 percent gratuity boldly stated on the menu for parties of six or more. “Karen” crossed out her $1.93 and wrote in zero while the rest of her party looked painfully embarrassed.
As they left, she turned and pointed a bony finger at me and said, “You probably should have gone to college.”
So not cool.
As far as real-life Karens go, I have a few wonderful women in my life who are undeserving of the name association, but like Brock’s Karens, they are unruffled. My new friend Keren is Jewish and her name in Hebrew means, “ray of light” among a few other things. More than a single ray, this Keren is focused on the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam.
Tikkun olam is a call to perform acts of kindness to heal and repair the world. It’s a common phrase when discussing social policy and safeguarding those who may be disadvantaged.
My other dear Karen is an all-around American girl. She’s down to earth, smart, fun, and cares deeply about the well-being of others. Loved and respected, she’s our publisher, den mother, and one of my earth angels.
An All Lives Matter person on Facebook recently ranted, “The Karen thing is an unfair stereotype,” but I’ll stick to the upside.
Once again, let’s learn how not to be.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.