Microaggressions, such as disapproving looks and chastising remarks, are of the most common types of aggression when it comes to racism in America today. Most of this microaggression stems from racial etiquette that dates back to the slavery days and Jim Crow laws that “dictated how black people should behave and interact with white people.” Recently, many micro-aggressors have been filmed and posted online, creating a new trend on social media that challenges this blatantly racist and discriminatory conduct. A majority of these posts describe the aggressor as a “Karen” (or “Connor” for male aggressors), a descriptor that mainstream social media immediately acknowledges as an “entitled white woman.”
Before “Karen” became the well-known meme that it is, originally the “Karen” character was identified by their “speak to the manager haircut”– a side-swept bob with spikey short hair in the back. Now, the “Karen” meme is largely used to identify and describe middle-aged white women who commit racist acts, specifically, unjustly calling the police on Black Americans and other people of color. Amy Cooper earned the name “Karen” when she called the police on a black man in Central Park who had asked her to put her dog back on its leash (a requirement of the park). “Karen” however, is only one of many “cop caller nicknames” that have graced the internet since 2018. For example, “Barbecue Becky” earned her nickname after calling the police on black men using a charcoal grill in a public park. Then there is “Permit Patty” and “Corner store Caroline,” who similarly called the police on people of color for unjust reasons.
At first, the filming of incidents like the ones mentioned above provides teachable moments about racism and discussions about what will and will not be tolerated in society today. Unfortunately, like anything else, social media and “viral monikers” may do more harm than good. According to journalist David Dennis Jr., “assigning nicknames to women who do nefarious things,” provides anonymity and “belittles what they’ve done.” Furthermore, while the “Karen” reference increases the probability that a video will trend, it is actually more important that society remember the offenders’ real names in order to hold them accountable for their actions.
Of course, social media recognition is never the ultimate goal of a movement. Consequently, efforts have been made to dissuade and even prohibit such unjust calling of the police not only by the people posting these “Karen” videos but also by police departments and government officials. While the police are legally liable to dispatch a car when they receive a call, police officers have begun to warn suspicious callers that “they could be charged with making a false police report if it happens again.” Furthermore, Legislation inspired by “Karen” incidents is also being passed in New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and other regions in order to criminalize unjust police calls. New York Governor Cuomo commented, “A false 911 call based on race should be classified as a hate crime in the state of New York.” Based on this declaration, violators could face between one and five years in prison in accordance with New York state’s hate crime statute (meaning if the call was motivated by “a perception or belief about their race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation”).
Social media has forced Americans to confront the uncomfortable reality that elitist and racist conduct, although perhaps less blatant than years passed, is still actively present even in the year 2020. What’s more, these racial attitudes are so deeply ingrained in American society and politics that many aggressors are friends, family members, neighbors, and other seemingly innocent people, which makes it more difficult (and less likely) for bystanders to speak up against the aggressors. Social media, therefore, provides a platform for others to speak out against the “Karen’s” and “Connor’s” of the world. Ultimately, as showcased in the examples of legislation reform above, without social media these “Karen” stereotype incidents of microaggression may never have gained the recognition and attention that is required to combat all discrimination, micro, and macro, of people of color in America.
Megan Kern is a second-year law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.