Karen: What’s in a Name?

Every month we will be inviting our readers to pitch us articles on a theme revealed in our regular newsletter. This month’s theme was ‘Karen’ and we chose Kiran Benawra’s pitch in which she examines what ‘Karen’ means today and why…

What’s in a name? Supremacy? Ah yes! Karen is a weapon of whiteness, a weapon whose tears and tantrums can result in the loss of life. Karen is not a funny woman. Karen is a dangerous entity.  

As a Kiran I have often been mistaken for a Karen. As some of those actually called Karen will know – just because your birth name is Karen it doesn’t mean you ARE a Karen. Although the term has mostly been linked to entitled white women, I feel like it’s important to note you don’t have to be a woman to be a Karen. You just have to be a person that upholds institutional racism, using the oppressive system to your advantage when you feel undermined. Simple.  

I looked into the Latin definition of Karen (because I’m super intellectual) and many cute baby naming websites told me it means “pure” and “clear”, and that the name links to St Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th century martyr who was tortured on a spiked wheel. Not so cute. 

The internet’s definition of Karen has evolved. It started as a funny meme of a white woman sporting a choppy blonde bob asking to speak to the manager, to an alarming number of videos and accounts of racist white people calling the police when they feel their privilege is being threatened, putting the lives of black people in danger.

I’ve seen Karens in action myself, white colleagues crying or complaining on cue to make black female colleagues look like aggressors, perpetuating stereotypes of the ‘angry black woman’.   During COVID-19 Karen culture has once again evolved with many recorded incidents of Karens shouting at, or coughing on, people who have asked them to wear masks in public. 

Not surprisingly, naming a child Karen is in decline. According to the Office for National Statistics, only 14 newborns were named Karen in the UK in 2019. Although the name Karen might soon become extinct, some Karens strongly oppose their name being used in a negative fashion in the media. Someone even set up a change.org petition to stop the use and it got 967 signatures. 

ITV’s This Morning recently invited three Karens on air to defend their birth name, Eamonn Holmes adding fuel to the fire by saying that calling someone a Karen is “almost racist”. Oh no Eamonn, you didn’t “almost” cite reverse racism as if it’s a thing on national TV to millions of viewers…oh, wait, you did. I understand it might be hurtful to have your name take on a new and negative meaning – just ask plain Jane and silly Billy – but it’s not racist.

Maybe it’s time to look at Karen as a homograph (words that are spelt the same but have a different meaning…yes, I’m an English grad.) Some Karens are pure and other Karens are white supremacists. Thankfully there are subsections of society rising up, calling out the army of the latter Karens, and striving for change. 

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