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.

Images courtesy of Mark Storhaug & Kaiya Bates

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The experiences we have at school tend to stay with us throughout our lives. It's an impactful time where small acts of kindness, encouragement, and inspiration go a long way.

Schools, classrooms, and teachers that are welcoming and inclusive support students' development and help set them up for a positive and engaging path in life.

Here are three of our favorite everyday actions that are spreading kindness on campus in a big way:

Image courtesy of Mark Storhaug

1. Pickleball to Get Fifth Graders Moving

Mark Storhaug is a 5th grade teacher at Kingsley Elementary in Los Angeles, who wants to use pickleball to get his students "moving on the playground again after 15 months of being Zombies learning at home."

Pickleball is a paddle ball sport that mixes elements of badminton, table tennis, and tennis, where two or four players use solid paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball over a net. It's as simple as that.

Kingsley Elementary is in a low-income neighborhood where outdoor spaces where kids can move around are minimal. Mark's goal is to get two or three pickleball courts set up in the schoolyard and have kids join in on what's quickly becoming a national craze. Mark hopes that pickleball will promote movement and teamwork for all his students. He aims to take advantage of the 20-minute physical education time allotted each day to introduce the game to his students.

Help Mark get his students outside, exercising, learning to cooperate, and having fun by donating to his GoFundMe.

Image courtesy of Kaiya Bates

2. Staying C.A.L.M: Regulation Kits for Kids

According to the WHO around 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In the US, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 1 in 20 experience severe mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Kaiya Bates, who was recently crowned Miss Tri-Cities Outstanding Teen for 2022, is one of those people, and has endured severe anxiety, depression, and selective mutism for most of her life.

Through her GoFundMe, Kaiya aims to use her "knowledge to inspire and help others through their mental health journey and to spread positive and factual awareness."

She's put together regulation kits (that she's used herself) for teachers to use with students who are experiencing stress and anxiety. Each "CALM-ing" kit includes a two-minute timer, fidget toolboxes, storage crates, breathing spheres, art supplies and more.

Kaiya's GoFundMe goal is to send a kit to every teacher in every school in the Pasco School District in Washington where she lives.

To help Kaiya achieve her goal, visit Staying C.A.L.M: Regulation Kits for Kids.

Image courtesy of Julie Tarman

3. Library for a high school heritage Spanish class

Julie Tarman is a high school Spanish teacher in Sacramento, California, who hopes to raise enough money to create a Spanish language class library.

The school is in a low-income area, and although her students come from Spanish-speaking homes, they need help building their fluency, confidence, and vocabulary through reading Spanish language books that will actually interest them.

Julie believes that creating a library that affirms her students' cultural heritage will allow them to discover the joy of reading, learn new things about the world, and be supported in their academic futures.

To support Julie's GoFundMe, visit Library for a high school heritage Spanish class.

Do YOU have an idea for a fundraiser that could make a difference? Upworthy and GoFundMe are celebrating ideas that make the world a better, kinder place. Visit upworthy.com/kindness to join the largest collaboration for human kindness in history and start your own GoFundMe.

via Gage Skidmore/Flickr and Terry Morgan/Flickr

Senator Ted Cruz and a kangaroo.

Conservative media in the United States has painted Australia as a state on the brink of authoritarianism due to strict COVID-19 protections in some parts of the country. These news outlets appear to be using the country as an example of what can happen in America if liberal politicians go unchecked.

Fox News' Tucker Carlson ran a story on Australia earlier this month claiming the country "looks a lot like China did at the beginning of the pandemic." He ended it by saying that "what's happening in Australia might be instructive to us in the United States" and that things can "change very quickly" and become "dystopian and autocratic."

Carlson provides zero reasons why Americans should be fearful of becoming an autocratic country due to COVID-19, beyond the idea that "things can change very quickly" so his appeals sound a lot more like fear-mongering than genuine concern.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."