Americans use the word behind it

White, privileged, condescending - the "Karen" phenomenon in the USA

Karen is not only a first name in the US, but also a derogatory term for a certain type of woman. Especially in the current debate on racism, "Karens" are a source of discussion.

More about the USA under Donald Trump here

James Juanillo is just about to write "Black Lives Matter" on the wall of his house when a white couple passes by. The woman explains with a fake smile: "You don't do it that way."

She is of the opinion that it cannot be the property of the man, a Filipino, and that he is damaging someone else's property. An argument develops that ends with the woman calling the police. James Juanillo later shared a video of the incident on Twitter. He writes: "'Karen' lies and claims she knows that I don't live in my own house because she knows the person who lives here."

The woman on the street is called Lisa - but for many Americans she is a typical "Karen".

"Karen" becomes a fixed term for a certain type

In addition to being a common first name in the United States, Karen has become a household name for a specific type of woman. She is usually privileged, white, between 40 and 50 years old. Above all, she is characterized by her arrogant character.

"To be called 'Karen' has never been a compliment," says the Heidelberg USA expert Tobias Endler in an interview with our editorial team. "This means people who bring a certain attitude of aspiration and self-righteousness into the world. They want the world to function according to their standards and are quite intolerant to ruthless."

Many Americans know women like this from their own everyday lives and their surroundings. The mostly derogatory term Karen has therefore found widespread use in the USA. "Don't be Karen", for example, can be used when people behave condescendingly towards employees in restaurants or shops.

New York incident fuels debate

America expert Endler has known the term for many years. But he has observed that he has been heard particularly often in recent months - on the one hand because of the corona pandemic. "It's mostly about women of the white middle class who don't take social distancing or wearing masks seriously and instead say: I just do my thing."

The term also plays a role in the current debate on racism. An example is a "Karen" whose real name is Amy and who has just achieved dubious notoriety: Chris Cooper, African American and bird watcher, asked the woman in Central Park, New York, to leash her dog as required.

Amy then threatened him: She would call the police and say that she was threatened by a black man. Chris Cooper also recorded this incident on a video that fueled the racism debate in the USA.

"Karen" comparable to "old white man"

Karen is a typical USA phenomenon. Finding a counterpart from German usage is not that easy. Endler most likely compares the American "Karen" with people who explain to others in this country how to park or where to ride a bike.

The author Annika Brockschmidt writes at "zeit.de" (fee-based article) that "Karen" can best be compared with "old white man", Alman or potato: terms that migrants who experience discrimination themselves now use to talk about the Make fun of majority society.

Where did the Karen name come from? There are various theories about this in the United States. In any case, it is particularly popular in the black community.

"A sign of emancipation"

Criticism of the label is also being discussed on social media: isn't it sexist? Is it even a form of racism when black people make fun of white women in this way?

Endler doesn't see it that way. From his point of view, however, the phenomenon speaks for the increased self-confidence of minorities in the USA: "It is a sign of emancipation that they no longer have to constantly explain and justify themselves to the 'Karens'."

If whites behave arrogantly and condescendingly towards blacks or Latinos, it has to do with the fact that they fear for their position: "Minorities in the USA are gaining privileges that have long been reserved for whites," explains Endler.

"They are increasingly leading a prosperous life. They not only express their opinions, but also make explicit demands such as reparations payments, and hold an increasing number of political offices." Some whites would react to this with what is known as "white anxiety": "With the often racist fear of the relative rise of minorities and their own loss of importance."

Stronger social control

The current incidents also show the role that social media play: Anyone who behaves like a "Karen" can possibly hope for approval, especially in conservative circles. In other parts of the political spectrum, however, a "shit storm" is predictable when a video goes viral.

"Now everything can be documented, social control has become stronger," says Endler. "This is also a way of emancipating yourself." In this way, blacks would also experience a lot of solidarity among the younger white population.

In any case, the world has not become any easier for the "Karens". This is also shown by the cases of Lisa and Amy: The woman who wanted to forbid a man to write "Black Lives Matter" on a house wall apologized fervently for her false suspicions.

Just like Amy, the dog owner from Central Park. Her behavior could have consequences for her: she has to answer for a false report in court. If convicted, she could face up to a year in prison.

About the expert: Dr. Tobias Endler is an Americanist and political scientist and works at the Heidelberg School of Education. He previously researched and taught at Yale University and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. In October 2020 his book "Game Over - Why there is no longer the West" about the relations between the USA and Europe will be published.

Sources used:

  • Conversation with Dr. Tobias Endler, Heidelberg School of Education
  • Jaimetoons Twitter account
  • Zeit.de: Internet memes - Karen is not just any Johannes
On May 25, the American George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by police violence. Since then, a wave of indignation has raged across the country and around the world. Large and small protests and demonstrations take place in many places.