Melissa Brown is a graduate of Duke University with a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She worked as an investigative broadcast journalist for MSNBC and for ABC News affiliates in Seattle and Washington DC—and lives in the Washington DC area with her family. Enrolled in the creative writing master's program at Johns Hopkins University, Brown avoids political discussions, frequents farmers' markets, heads out to the Chesapeake Bay whenever possible and is currently working on a novel. This is her first published story.
[ kair-in ]
WHAT DOES KAREN MEAN?
Karen is a pejorative slang term for an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way or police other people's behaviors. As featured in memes, Karen is generally stereotyped as having a blonde bob haircut, asking to speak to retail and restaurant managers to voice complaints or make demands, and being an anti-vaxx, Generation X soccer mom.
In 2020, Karen spread as a label used to call out white women who were captured in viral videos engaging in what are widely seen as racist acts.
Karen was one of the top trends in 2020. Read our 2020 Word of The Year article to see why."
“You cannot name the cat Karen,” Michelle said as she mopped up cat vomit from the sisal rug.
“But Karen wants to register some complaints,” said fourteen-year-old Sage.
“Karen needs to speak to the manager,” agreed Sage’s older brother Luke. Admittedly there were issues. Their new Siamese rescue cat would gulp down her Fancy Feast, only to promptly regurgitate it in a mustardy sludge onto the living room rug. The cat had also spent the entire first week skulking through the house looking around at the tasteful midcentury-inspired decor with a crosseyed, frowny face, expressing her discontent with a plaintive nails-on-chalkboard wail. “Mom, Karen doesn’t like the accommodations,” said Luke, as Karen began clawing a thousand-dollar leather Eames chair.
Even Michelle’s husband Evan joined the Karen name train. After the kids took pictures of the cat wearing a tiny knit pink pussy hat, cobalt slitted eyes blazing with fury, legs sticking out stiffly in four different directions like a cat in a cartoon, Evan reposted the picture on his Instagram: #KarentheKitty #thestruggleisreal #pissedoffpussy.
I’m a pissed off pussy, Michelle texted her best friend Heather.
The name Karen means Pure and is of Scandinavian origin. Karen is a name that's been used primarily by parents who are considering baby names for girls.
Danish form of Katherine. Karen Carpenter, singer. Karen Black, actress. Karen Blixen, author. Variations include: Caryn, Karon, Karyn, Caren Stats for the Name Karen
Karen is currently not ranked on the Baby Names popularity charts"
The lacrosse bros in your boyfriend’s fraternity called her Black Karen, as in: “Black Karen is the best-looking Black girl at Duke.” The ponytailed guys who read poetry in the campus coffee house called her Hot Karen. She was your freshman year roommate and your best friend. Did she know the boys called her that? You never asked, she never said. You grew up in NYC around plenty of Black people, but to your chagrin, you had never had a close friend, a confidante, who was Black. When you got your roommate’s name in the envelope the roommate assignment card said: “Karen Cooper from St. Louis.” The personal information form said she played field hockey and liked Depeche Mode. She looked worried when you walked in the room and saw her sitting on her neatly made bed with its blue-flowered Laura Ashley comforter.
“Not what you were expecting right?” Karen asked.
But when you saw her you felt like you won the lottery. Her beauty was one thing and yes, her otherness. You were drawn to her like everyone was. Now you see how amazing it was how she navigated the racial minefield of a southern university in the 1990s. She darted around social obstacles, hopscotched through people’s expectations: not pledging a Black sorority or a white one, dating a Black basketball star, then the white heir to a candy empire. Karen was somehow welcome everywhere. Once she said a girl in her Afro-American studies class (yes, that is what they called it then) called her an Oreo. She said she was more like cookies and cream ice cream—she felt all mixed up. You think she said that to try to explain it to you, to break it down. But you suspect it’s not how she felt. If you are honest, you were jealous when you saw her talking to her Black friends on campus. The way her shoulders relaxed. The way she threw her head back when she laughed with them, eyes flashing, a softer smile.
And no one laughed harder than her about the Karen phenomenon. Once, near the end, when you took her for her chemo, she told you, “You know my mom named me Karen for the exact reason that it sounded so white. She wanted people to read my college application, my resume, and not know. She wanted me to be able to make a damn dinner reservation.”
In the very end, sometimes you stood outside her hospital room, lingering like a stalker or an unwelcome guest. You saw her cousins, her friends from high school, gathered around her bed, their heads bowed together dark hair touching, brown hands clasped in prayer. They laughed with her about old private jokes from the time before you. Karen never prayed or went to church once all the time you knew her. When she looked up at you standing at the door to the hospital room, her eyes were blank, like she was looking through you, like you were a stranger.
“Karens—entitled middle age women who display a septic amount of white privilege.”
I don’t complain anymore. Ever. But these days the complaints are building up—I imagine a mountain of resentment, like a landfill or one of those islands of plastic floating around the Pacific forming new continents. I imagine a Greek chorus of Karens following me: they are all white women, middle-aged, in skinny jeans, all wearing ironic tee-shirts with slogans like “Because I said so” and “Can I speak to the manager?” Their arms are usually crossed over their chests, but sometimes they put their hands on their hips. They wear their hair in complicated frosted bobs, shades of blond from platinum to soft gold.
Just say you don’t like dressing on your salad, they whisper.
The dealer said the car would be ready an hour ago and now you are really late. Just ask when it will be ready, they croon.
Post a picture of the SUV that took up three parking spaces, in the crowded Safeway lot! It’s funny: everyone will get it, they encourage.
I try to explain to them that there is safety in silence. But they are talking about me amongst themselves, looking at me over their shoulders, like every mean girl I ever met at a dance competition or PTA meeting. There is a metallic buzz in the air. They have a plan for me, I fear.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article is about the term and meme. For the name itself, see Karen (name). For other uses, see Karen.
Karen is a pejorative term for a white woman seeming perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal. The term is often portrayed in memes depicting white women who use their privilege to demand their own way. ... The term has been criticized for being ageist, sexist, racist, classist, misogynistic and seeking to control women's behavior. The Guardian called 2020 'the year of Karen.'"
KAREN ONE, AGAIN
Michelle chose the cat after weeks of stalking different sad cases on Petfinder. “Get off the pet porn,” Evan would complain as the white light of her laptop kept him awake. The rescue named the cat Esther, a retro-cute name Michelle would have kept, but the kids insisted on Karen. From the start, Karen would aggressively ignore pleas to come and sit with them. She would allow them to pet her, but if a human finger touched her anywhere but below her left ear or directly above her right cheekbone, she savagely clawed or bit.
Michelle fed her, scooped the litterbox, but Karen only liked Luke, already six-foot-four at seventeen, a modern-day Viking with blazing red hair styled into a half crew cut, half floppy-on-top style that displeased his Jewish grandmother, who described it as “early Hitler-youth.” In another era, Luke might have turned into a marauding, date-raping ball of toxic masculinity, but the hippie progressive school that Michelle, yes, Michelle, had championed sending him to for $40K a year had brainwashed him into a member of the Gen Z Stasi. He was a level-100 thought policeman, a cancel culture warrior ready to pounce on Michelle and Evan at every transgression. When Michelle slowed down the minivan to give money to a homeless person sitting on the side of the highway at Exit 33 (of course she was the only one in the family old-fashioned enough to have actual cash or change) Luke scolded her. “He is not homeless, Mom—he is a person experiencing homelessness. It’s presumptive to assume money is what he needs.”
“A house is what he needs, Luke.”
“You are projecting your white middle-class values on him.”
“Are you even being serious?” Michelle rolled down the window.
“I’m Gen X for fuck’s sake!” yelled Michelle as she handed the homeless man a five through the window, careful not to touch his hand.
KAREN TWO, AGAIN
For all of Freshman year, Karen didn’t talk about St Louis and you didn’t ask. It was as if she came to life fully formed at the moment you opened the dorm room door: Botticelli’s Venus in a neon yellow Benetton sweater. You knew she’d gone to a fancy private school on scholarship, modeled in fashion shows at her local mall, had a mother and two cousins and a father with another family. But she was private, and you were so desperate to be close to her, you accepted not knowing her.
If you are honest, there were points at which the friendship stuttered, moments of misunderstanding so painful it made you both wince. There were small things, like when you tried to make her run across the quad in a rainstorm. Drunk on wine coolers, you grabbed her arm to pull her out into the storm. She snapped at you and told you playing in the rain was for white girls. And the hair. Once you started to ask her about it as she prepared for bed, carefully wrapping her head in a shiny black scarf. “Don’t be a fucking anthropologist,” she said.
“But I’m just trying to understand this hair thing.”
“Just don’t,” she said, “please don’t be an asshole.”
And bigger ones. Like when she chose a childhood friend from home to be godmother to her daughter Coco. She said “I know you are not religious and I’m just doing it for my grandma,” not looking you in the eye. This, after you drove her to all her IVF appointments, helped her scan through hundreds of sperm donors looking for the perfect confluence of education, brains, and BMI. This after the phone rang and your husband said, your girlfriend is going into labor (he called her your girlfriend as a joke, but he was jealous, you knew, of her draw, her charisma, your shared twenty-year history, stickier than sex). This, after you were the first one to hold Coco in the hospital, after you kissed her tiny, wrinkled nose and her thin spider fingers touched your cheek like a whisper.
"What is more Karen than complaining about being called 'Karen?'"
KAREN THREE, AGAIN
Some days the Karens like to hang out in the back seat of the minivan squeezed in like circus clowns. In the rearview mirror, their features meld together not quite holding their form. Other days they crowd around me in the bathroom, fixing their lipstick, borrowing the hairspray. They sound like bees, blenders, a buzzsaw. I don’t encourage them. I am not even checking social media but they seem to know what’s going on anyway.
Just so you know, your daughter is posting some craaazy selfies, one whispers.
Her hoo-ha is practically showing and she’s almost French kissing her little female friend, she adds.
We don’t judge, another says sweetly. You just might want to do something about it: you are her mother.
It’s a matter of her personal safety, her reputation, says another.
“I’m letting her express herself,” I say. They roll their eyes in union. They all draw closer as I take a sip of my Starbucks mocha. I quickly put the lid on. The smell can make them, well, out-of-control; a good whiff and sometimes they start spinning, like dervishes, a whirlpool, or maybe something more ancient and essential.
What about your son’s rude friend? He literally spat on the street in front of you.
That’s just gross, and you said nothing, says another.
“What am I supposed to do? I’m not his parent.” I feel myself tearing up. Some days I get weak and emotional when they visit, like PMS or post-partum, or a really bad breakup.
“I’m just so tired of always saying the wrong thing,” I explain.
One of them steps forward. She is taller than the rest and a dead ringer for reality star Kate Gosselin, the OG Karen. She whispers in my ear, “Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst treated things alive.” That’s some Euripides shit, girlfriend.
KAREN ONE, FINALLY
After just a week, Karen the Cat got her own Instagram page started by Sage. #KarentheCat. She had 1500 followers in four days and counting. The kids posed Karen in different poses: Karen crosseyed and scowling under a baby-sized MAGA hat, Karen on the dining room table dressed in a tiny Trump tee-shirt, her pink nose atop a giant glass of white wine, sniffing. Most recently, they had posted another shot where it looked like Karen was sitting on the sofa watching The Bachelor, eyes half-closed, blissfully relaxed. It already had 300 likes.
Michelle loved The Bachelor, liked losing herself in its ridiculous fantasy. Last Monday, during the season finale, Luke had plopped down by her, collapsing his long limbs like one of the Transformer toys he’d had as a ten-year-old, folding up at the joints to fit in next to her on the sofa, settling in to watch.
“Mom you love this heteronormative shit.”
“What’s your problem,” Michelle heard herself snapping.
“These stereotypes are just so damaging to marginalized communities, and you are contributing.” Karen, who’d been glaring at Michelle from the kitchen counter, immediately jumped on the sofa and curled into Luke’s lap, purring.
Sometimes, how much she disliked her children surprised Michelle. For instance, Luke’s current habit of crowing with laughter at things that were not actually funny; like when a landscaper, shoehorning his truck down their narrow street, sideswiped her minivan, then gave them the finger and kept driving, Luke threw his head back and yelled, “That’s hilarious!” Sometimes she thought about how Luke, as a huge baby in utero, got wedged under her sternum, his growing head breaking her lowest rib slowly. There was a slow, painful, insistent pushing from inside.
She felt that way a lot now, like there was something deep within her gestating, something that would not be contained.
KAREN TWO, FINALLY
After Karen dies, some weekends you take her five-year-old daughter Coco to the farmer’s market in Bethesda. Coco holds the leash to your giant, sedate, geriatric Saint Bernard in her small fist and holds your son’s hand in the other. They are as cute as a postcard. Everyone smiles at them, that fake I-love-your-interracial-family-you-are-a-good-person-and-I-approve look you have grown to expect when Coco is with you. Coco moves at a glacially slow speed, carefully placing organic apples one at a time into your environmentally correct canvas tote. There is a line and the lady behind you is impatient but keeping it under control. In a fake-sweet voice, the lady says, “Let your mommy and brother do it, sweetie.”
“She’s not my mommy, she’s my auntie,” Coco explains. Coco calls you auntie, but she calls all of Karen’s friends, cousins, and even distant relatives that. It’s not really an honor or distinction. It doesn’t explain what you were to Karen. What you had. She called you her Sista From Another Mista. Karen did not give you custody, but she could have, you think. “You are amazing and I love you to pieces,” Karen explained, “but she needs to be with someone who understands.”
KAREN THREE, FINALLY
Lately, the Karens are restless. They are out for blood.
It’s totally unjust that you cannot express yourself. You are a good person, says one of them.
You didn’t vote for Trump! You hate Trump, they whisper.
Just post something political, one Facebook post, one little thing, one funny meme, they entice.
“I’m good,” I say. “I’m OK. I’m lucky, I realize how lucky I am—I don’t need everyone to know my business.” The Karen who looks like an aging Paris Hilton grabs my arm—I look down at her immaculate gel manicure. The nails seem to be growing longer as they dig in, making divots in the flesh.
It’s not fair, she hisses. I mean no one is less racist than you literally no one. You are not even one of us, she points out.
The other Karens nod in agreement.
Hashtag Unfair, says one.
I worry when they get worked up like this. I feel a dangerous vibration in the air. Like the acolytes of old, I need to appease them. Valium works, an edible gummy, a white wine spritzer, obviously. Sometimes a round of internet shopping calms things down; they love Lululemon and Anthropologie, Sephora. A few laps around a luxury discount outlet can quiet them for days.
I try talking to them again: “Ladies really, this is a moment in time that is bigger than you, bigger than me. It’s a learning moment for everyone.”
Kate-Karen laughs at me and they draw closer, circling. I smell self-tanner, kale salad, Clinique Happy, mimosas, iron. Also: something musky and wild. I can tell they will not be ignored. They have things that they need to get done.
Entry for “Karen (slang).” DICTIONARY.COM, 5 March 2022, https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/karen/.
Entry for “Karen.” Babynames.com, 5 March 2022, https://babynames.com/name/Karen.
Weingarten, Gene. “Gene Weingarten: Karen’s better half? Darren, obviously.” Washington Post, 2 February 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/gene-weingarten-karens-better-half-darren-obviously/2021/02/23/eb350fa8-6be7-11eb-9f80-3d7646ce1bc0_story.html.
Entry for “Karen (slang).” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 5 March 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_(slang)#mw-head.
 Nagesh, Ashitha (July 30, 2020). "What exactly is a 'Karen' and where did the meme come from?". BBC News. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
 Greenspan, Rachel (October 26, 2020). "How the name 'Karen' became a stand-in for problematic White women and a hugely popular meme". Insider. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
 Wong, Julia Carrie (December 27, 2020). "The year of Karen: how a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism". The Guardian. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
Lewis, Helen. “The Mythology of Karen.” The Atlantic, 24 August 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/08/karen-meme-coronavirus/615355/.