Day 6

After racial violence in the U.S., writer Karen Attiah re-examines the 'Karen' meme

Karens around the world have been getting a bad rap on social media, thanks to a meme most often used to mock or poke fun at middle-aged white women acting out of an inflated sense of entitlement. But after it was invoked following an incident in New York's Central Park, writer Karen Attiah is rethinking her relationship to her own name.

Likening 'Karen' memes to racial slurs 'trivializes actual violence and discrimination,' says Attiah

The name Karen has become a shorthand for a certain kind of white, privileged middle-class woman. Washington Post global opinions editor Karen Attiah wrote a deeper dive into the racial dynamics of the meme in April. (Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images)
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Writer Karen Attiah is rethinking the backlash to a popular online meme, and her relationship with her own given name, after it was invoked following an incident in New York's Central Park.

"I find it ... intriguing that my name is now symbolic of a lot of the things that I speak out against," Attiah, global opinions editor for The Washington Post, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Karens around the world have been getting a bad rap on social media, thanks to a meme most often used to mock or poke fun at middle-aged white women acting out of an inflated sense of entitlement. 

In April, Attiah wrote a column titled "The 'Karen' Memes and Jokes Aren't Sexist or Racist. Let a Karen Explain."

"At the time, they were sort of jokes.... But at the same time, there was always an undercurrent — at least for those of us in the black community who are using the name — always an undercurrent of darkness, I think, to it," she said.

On Monday, a video taken by birdwatcher Christian Cooper went viral. Cooper, who is black, asked a woman to put a leash on her dog in a leashed area of Central Park.

Being named Karen gives you a certain amount of privilege.- Karen Attiah

The woman, Amy Cooper, responded by threatening to call the police.

"I'm going to tell them that there's an African American man threatening my life," Amy Cooper, who is white, said in the video.

Before long, she became known on social media as Central Park Karen. 

Cooper has since been fired from her investment firm Franklin Templeton, according to a tweet from the company.

She also "voluntarily surrendered" her dog to the Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue organization, according to a Facebook post from the group.

Saying he does not know if Amy Cooper is racist, Christian Cooper believes she definitely committed a racist act. 0:27

Racial tensions in the U.S. have reignited as well beyond this incident. Protests erupted in Minneapolis after a black man named George Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck as he lay on the ground following his arrest.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder in Floyd's death.

To Attiah, snarky tweets about the Karen meme and stories about police violence against black people both belong in the wider conversation about race in the United States.

"We see that Amy Cooper video. And automatically, you know, we see that the George Floyd incident, again, could be the logical conclusion of what happens when excessive force is called in on black folks for no reason," she said.

Where did the Karen meme come from?

The Karen meme had sparked debates about gender and race dynamics before the Central Park incident came to light.

While the exact origin of the meme is unknown, many point to a scene from the film Mean Girls, which itself poked fun at racial identity dynamics.

In its latest resurgence over the past few months, it's flooded Twitter, TikTok and other social media platforms. The Guardian's Hadley Freeman labelled it sexist, ageist and classist, as the name is often ascribed to boomer-aged white women.

In her column, Attiah called out Freeman's column specifically for glossing over the meme's racial dynamics and criticized a handful of other tweets and columns that likened the meme to a slur on the level of the n-word.

"Calling the Karen meme the new n-word or asserting that it is a sexist slur only trivializes actual violence and discrimination that destroy lives and communities," she wrote.

Attiah, whose parents are from West Africa, has been thinking about her own name and what it means in light of the meme, and the wider conversation about race, especially in the U.S.

She says her mother chose the name Karen because a "foreign"-sounding name could attract negative attention.

Protesters demonstrate outside of a burning Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct on Thursday in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

"Being named Karen gives you a certain amount of privilege," she recalled her mother telling her.

"Nobody is going to judge you on your name when they see you, when they see you on an application. Nobody's going to struggle to pronounce your name."

But despite it becoming the latest lightning rod in the social media discourse, Attiah says she's still proud to be a Karen.

"I was talking to my mother about it literally yesterday, and she said: 'You know what, Karen? This is a time for you to be a Karen. Don't shy away from it. This is where you're going to call the manager out on racism and injustice.'"


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that Amy Cooper's dog was removed from her care. In fact, the Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue organization stated that Cooper voluntarily surrendered the dog.
    May 30, 2020 9:47 AM ET

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