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How ‘Karen’ went from a popular baby name to a stand-in for white entitlement
Photo by Francesca Ciarlo on Unsplash

When I read about Amy Cooper, the woman in Central Park who called the police on a black birder because he'd asked her to leash her out-of-control dog, I was horrified.

But, as a sociolinguist who studies and writes about language and discrimination, I was also struck by the name given to Cooper in several headlines: "Central Park Karen." On Twitter, the birder's sister also referred to her as a "Karen."

There was no confusion about what this meant: It was a label for a white woman who had used her privilege to threaten and try to intimidate a black man by calling the police.


But this was just one way "Karen" has been deployed in recent months. There was the woman dubbed a Karen who, after being told that a waiter would bring ketchup to her table, ended up helping herself at the server's station. And then there was the mom who was called a Karen for telling a woman wearing a bikini to cover up. Countless other variations have emerged.

At first glance, a generic name becoming infused with so much meaning seems patently absurd. Imagine if your friend groused that his boss was being "a real David," or a sibling pointed out that mom was acting like "such a Christina."

So how, exactly, does a name like Karen become such a powerful form of social commentary? And how does it come to mean so many different things at the same time?

The many shapes of meaning

First names tend to contain a range of social cues. An obvious one is gender. But they can convey other kinds of information too, including age, ethnicity, religion, social class and geography. The first name Karen peaked in popularity in 1965, which means that in 2020, most people named Karen are middle aged. Because roughly 80% of the U.S. population was white in the 1960s, it's safe to assume that the proportion of people named Karen in 2020 is predominantly white.

So that's kind of a rough foundation for what the first name Karen might signal to people. But what about the way it evolved to mean much more than simply a first name relatively common among middle-aged white women?

On the one hand, meaning can directly reference something in the world. A kitchen is, well, a kitchen. For this reason, we often assume that meanings are fixed and stable.

But meaning can also be more indirect, indicating characteristics like where a person is from, their age or their ethnicity. Whether you say "soda," "pop" or "Coke" for a carbonated beverage can indicate where in the United States you likely grew up. In many African American communities, kitchen, in addition to being the place you cook, means "nape of the neck."

These different definitions are often referred to as "indexical" because different contexts indicate, or index, different meanings. Meaning, it turns out isn't nearly as stable or fixed as we like to think.

This is how the use and understandings of words change and shift over time. It's also how they can become vehicles for social commentary.

Karen's origin story

It's largely a coincidence that Karen – rather than, say, other popular baby names from the 1960s like Linda or Cynthia – is the name that became the label. Instead, it's the repeated use of the name on social media and on the street that reinforced its status.

By tracing the origins of Karen up until the Central Park incident, you can see how two separate threads of meaning converged to make Karen the label for an officious, entitled, white woman.

The first comes from African American communities, where certain generic first names have long been a shorthand for "a white woman to be wary of because she won't hesitate to wield privilege at the expense of others." Around 2018, people started posting pictures of white women calling the police on the mundane activities of black people. These individuals got labeled with hashtags like #bbqbecky, #permitpatti, #golfcartgail and #cornerstonecaroline.

The goal was to call out the inherent racism and white privilege of these women using a particular kind of alliterative flair. This was the same sort of behavior that Amy Cooper engaged in when she called the police claiming to be threatened.

The second thread emerges from stand-up comedy and Reddit. In 2005, Dane Cook performed a sketch comedy piece in which Karen is "that friend nobody likes." In the sketch, she's described as "always a douche." This portrayal of a "Karen" is less about her racism and contains more gender-based critiques, which might be why some continue to call the Karen meme sexist.

Then, in late 2017, Karen appeared on Reddit as a parody of a Reddit user who had ranted about his ex-wife named Karen who received custody of their children and possession of the family home. That's likely the point at which Karen became linked to pushy behaviors like "wanting to speak to the manager." A link that may have occurred first through parody went on to serve as an actual label for self-important, bossy people.

A Karen by many other names

The Central Park incident created the perfect moment for these two strands to come together. There's the intersection of entitled behavior, racism and demographics.

Interestingly, despite a lot of media analysis about what Karen "really" means, its use has been quite fluid. For example, we've seen people who deny the existence of racism, panic buy toilet paper or call for an end to social distancing all called "Karens."

In fact, the meaning and use of Karen continues to shift. We can find male Karens and black Karens. Donald Trump has even been called a Karen.

And then there's the way it's being used to push for justice, with protesters of police violence holding signs like "Karens against police brutality" and "I'd like to speak to the manager of systemic racism."

So is Karen fundamentally about white women using their racial privilege as a weapon? Is it about being an obnoxious rule follower? Or is it about being a no-fun, hysterical mom?

Karen can be and is all of those. That doesn't weaken the critique; it simply gives it more facets and nuance.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.

Pop Culture

Artist uses AI to create ultra realistic portraits of celebrities who left us too soon

What would certain icons look like if nothing had happened to them?

Mercury would be 76 today.

Some icons have truly left this world too early. It’s a tragedy when anyone doesn’t make it to see old age, but when it happens to a well-known public figure, it’s like a bit of their art and legacy dies with them. What might Freddie Mercury have created if he were granted the gift of long life? Bruce Lee? Princess Diana?

Their futures might be mere musings of our imagination, but thanks to a lot of creativity (and a little tech) we can now get a glimpse into what these celebrities might have looked like when they were older.

Alper Yesiltas, an Istanbul-based lawyer and photographer, created a photography series titled “As If Nothing Happened,” which features eerily realistic portraits of long gone celebrities in their golden years. To make the images as real looking as possible, Yesiltas incorporated various photo editing programs such as Adobe Lightroom and VSCO, as well as the AI photo-enhancing software Remini.

“The hardest part of the creative process for me is making the image feel ‘real’ to me,” Yesiltas wrote about his passion project. “The moment I like the most is when I think the image in front of me looks as if it was taken by a photographer.”

Yesiltas’ meticulousness paid off, because the results are uncanny.

Along with each photo, Yesiltas writes a bittersweet message “wishing” how things might have gone differently … as if nothing happened.
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All images provided by Adewole Adamson

It begins with more inclusive conversations at a patient level

True

Adewole Adamson, MD, of the University of Texas, Austin, aims to create more equity in health care by gathering data from more diverse populations by using artificial intelligence (AI), a type of machine learning. Dr. Adamson’s work is funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), an organization committed to advancing health equity through research priorities, programs and services for groups who have been marginalized.

Melanoma became a particular focus for Dr. Adamson after meeting Avery Smith, who lost his wife—a Black woman—to the deadly disease.

melanoma,  melanoma for dark skin Avery Smith (left) and Adamson (sidenote)

This personal encounter, coupled with multiple conversations with Black dermatology patients, drove Dr. Adamson to a concerning discovery: as advanced as AI is at detecting possible skin cancers, it is heavily biased.

To understand this bias, it helps to first know how AI works in the early detection of skin cancer, which Dr. Adamson explains in his paper for the New England Journal of Medicine (paywall). The process uses computers that rely on sets of accumulated data to learn what healthy or unhealthy skin looks like and then create an algorithm to predict diagnoses based on those data sets.

This process, known as supervised learning, could lead to huge benefits in preventive care.

After all, early detection is key to better outcomes. The problem is that the data sets don’t include enough information about darker skin tones. As Adamson put it, “everything is viewed through a ‘white lens.’”

“If you don’t teach the algorithm with a diverse set of images, then that algorithm won’t work out in the public that is diverse,” writes Adamson in a study he co-wrote with Smith (according to a story in The Atlantic). “So there’s risk, then, for people with skin of color to fall through the cracks.”

Tragically, Smith’s wife was diagnosed with melanoma too late and paid the ultimate price for it. And she was not an anomaly—though the disease is more common for White patients, Black cancer patients are far more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, causing a notable disparity in survival rates between non-Hispanics whites (90%) and non-Hispanic blacks (66%).

As a computer scientist, Smith suspected this racial bias and reached out to Adamson, hoping a Black dermatologist would have more diverse data sets. Though Adamson didn’t have what Smith was initially looking for, this realization ignited a personal mission to investigate and reduce disparities.

Now, Adamson uses the knowledge gained through his years of research to help advance the fight for health equity. To him, that means not only gaining a wider array of data sets, but also having more conversations with patients to understand how socioeconomic status impacts the level and efficiency of care.

“At the end of the day, what matters most is how we help patients at the patient level,” Adamson told Upworthy. “And how can you do that without knowing exactly what barriers they face?”

american cancer society, skin cacner treatment"What matters most is how we help patients at the patient level."https://www.kellydavidsonstudio.com/

The American Cancer Society believes everyone deserves a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer—regardless of how much money they make, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender identity, their disability status, or where they live. Inclusive tools and resources on the Health Equity section of their website can be found here. For more information about skin cancer, visit cancer.org/skincancer.

via Dion Merrick / Facebook

This article originally appeared on 02.09.21


At 1:30 am on Monday morning an AMBER Alert went out in southern Louisiana about a missing 10-year-old girl from New Iberia. It was believed she had been kidnapped and driven away in a 2012 silver Nissan Altima.

A few hours later at 7 am, Dion Merrick and Brandon Antoine, sanitation workers for Pelican Waste, were on their daily route when they noticed a vehicle that fit the description in the alert.

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Joy

Nurse turns inappropriate things men say in the delivery room into ‘inspirational’ art

"Can you move to the birthing ball so I can sleep in the bed?"

Holly the delivery nurse.

After working six years as a labor and delivery nurse Holly, 30, has heard a lot of inappropriate remarks made by men while their partners are in labor. “Sometimes the moms think it’s funny—and if they think it’s funny, then I’ll laugh with them,” Holly told TODAY Parents. “But if they get upset, I’ll try to be the buffer. I’ll change the subject.”

Some of the comments are so wrong that she did something creative with them by turning them into “inspirational” quotes and setting them to “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton on TikTok.

“Some partners are hard to live up to!” she jokingly captioned the video.

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