Karen is My Name
When people first start using your name as a meme, it seems very odd – even surreal. Like being at a party where the other guests are acting very strangely:
We’ll pick a random name: “Jeff.” Let’s say Jeff is at a party, and a lot of people start making jokes about some comical character named “Jeff.” At first Jeff feels confused, but he tries to laugh along. Then he notices that people are starting to yell “F*** you, Jeff!” to express anger at people who aren’t named Jeff. Soon “F*** you Jeff!” and “Go to hell Jeff!” are heard more frequently than the original jokes about the funny character. He hears angry comments like “A typical Jeff—what an idiot!” and “Don’t be a Jeff!” and “Jeff is such a crappy name anyway!”
Jeff stays quiet for a while, but the jokes and taunts about “Jeff” only get more hostile. Finally he decides to speak up. Nervously, he clears his throat. “You may not have known, but my name is actually Jeff. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I think this ‘Jeff’ thing isn’t funny anymore.”
The first response is, “We weren’t even talking about you—but it figures you’d be totally self-centered, since your name is Jeff.” And then the entire party erupts with angry cries of, “See? People named Jeff really are jerks!” and “If you don’t want to be called a Jeff, just don’t act like a Jeff!” And along with this outpouring of anger, over and over he’s told, “Just don’t take it personally!”
Of course, a personal name is, by definition, personal. Your name is the one word that signifies you, not only to you but to all of your friends, colleagues and loved ones. Your name is one of the most important parts of how you connect with another human being: you give your name when you first meet, and your name becomes that which, in their mind, identifies you as an individual. Your name is the verbal doorway through which you reach out for connection with other people and they connect with you.
A name-shame fad like the “Karen” craze turns a personal name into a badge of shame by identifying it with attitudes and behaviors that people want to shame and banish from society. It transforms a personal name, which should be an open channel through which one person can connect with another individual, into something choked and clogged with other people’s garbage.
The “Karen” fad at this point heaps an incredible jumble of stigmatized behaviors onto one name: “Karen” is accused of being militantly pro-mask, selfishly anti-mask, a mindless promoter of dangerous coronavirus vaccines and a crazed anti-vax conspiracy theorist; “Karens” are variously accused of flouting rules, enforcing rules, voting Republican, voting Democrat, and being both white supremacist and excessively “PC.” Whatever people may be trying to convey when they call someone “a Karen” tends to get lost in the chaos, as the only agreed-on part of the meaning is “someone we hate.” Arguments frequently break out over the “correct” meaning of “Karen.”
The vast majority of the people who are circulating “Karen” memes and loading the “Karen” insult with umpteen conflicting meanings are white. Yet some people speak as if all of this were primarily a means for the Black community to express its legitimate grievances about white people who trigger racist violence against Black men. In fact, white people who use “Karen” as a general term of abuse—simply to shut women up—are often the same ones trying to excuse the fad by claiming that this is all about empowering Black people.
Perspectives of Women Named Karen
Women with the birth name Karen have a range of opinions on the use of their name as an all-purpose dumping ground for other people’s complaints. For some real Karens, who would describe the fad merely as “annoying,” it’s something like having the neighbors repeatedly throw their beer bottles into your yard. You shake your head at their idiocy, but they don’t do real damage to your life.
But as the “Karen” name-shame craze has grown from a small internet fad into a cultural juggernaut, with both the mainstream media and celebrities on social media participating, many real Karens—women with the birth name Karen—believe that the trash that’s heaped onto “Karen” threatens to crush and bury their name. Real Karens are having serious difficulty using their name for its intended purpose: to signify their personal identity and enable them to connect with other people. There are multiple warning signs that it’s getting hard for some people to see past the stereotypes and jokey associations, to interact with real Karens as actual human beings rather than as people to ridicule. Many real Karens fear that their birth name will become practically unusable.
Yet when real Karens ask other people to stop heaping their garbage onto our name before it’s too late, the response is often the mantra, “Just don’t take it personally.” Let’s think about that:
Imagine that your city chose your home address as the location for the new town dump, without considering that someone lives there – even though you were born in that house, you’ve lived there your entire life, and you thought you were a member of the community in good standing. Suddenly there are garbage trucks showing up day and night, emptying mountains of smelly trash into your front yard.
At first the situation seems so bizarre that you can’t believe it—you think there must be some mistake. But the trucks keep coming until your front door is nearly buried. In desperation, you call the city. But the man who answers the phone can’t see the problem. “The city just needed a place to put its trash. It’s nothing personal, so just don’t take it personally.”
It’s as if you’re trapped in a nightmare and can’t wake up. You must not have been clear enough. Surely if you can just make him see how serious the problem is—
“But how will I go in and out of my house? How can I live in the middle of a landfill? I’m going to be trapped behind a solid wall of garbage!”
“Well – nobody seems to think it’s a problem. So just don’t worry about it.”
You hear a truck outside dumping another load of trash in front of your door. The flowers you had been growing out front and the trees that your parents grew from seedlings were crushed and buried much earlier. Now the trash is piling up in front of the windows. You know that some of the neighbors think that all this trash is your fault; you sometimes hear the neighbor children singing taunts about the person who lives in garbage. You still can’t believe that the city can just decide to do this to someone’s home.
“What do you mean?!” you ask, trying not to sound hysterical. “I think it’s a problem. My door is practically buried under rotting garbage—I can barely squeeze through, and I have to crawl over a mountain of trash. Soon there will be no way in or out!”
“Well, I don’t know what you’re getting so upset about. Nobody has indicated that it’s a problem. So just don’t take it personally.” He hangs up. As you stare at the phone, you hear the rumble of another garbage truck pulling up.
It’s hard to imagine anything more personal than your fundamental sense of who you are, how you are connected to the world around you, and how you are seen and known by other people. Name-shaming is a profound violation of these core elements of one’s sense of self. It’s unfair and wrong to turn something as deeply personal as a birth name into a trash receptacle and to bury it under a mountain of jokes, insults, stereotypes and projections.
At this point, thousands of women named Karen are trying every single day to get one simple message across, via online comments and tweets, letters to the editor and one-on-one conversations. The message is this:
Stop dumping your trash onto the name “Karen.” (And don’t dump it on anyone else’s name, either, because no one should have to go through this.) Just stop doing this to my name. It’s not your toilet, it’s not your garbage can, and it’s not your municipal waste dump.
Karen is my name.