Breaking format today because I have a problem, which is that I am endlessly scrolling Twitter even more than usual these days. The problem with that, other than the obvious, is that sooner or later I run into something I can use for work, which means I’m getting positive reinforcement from what is, let’s be honest, a bad habit. 

A couple of nights ago, what I found was a tweet:

Where do I even start with this? 

First of all, let’s acknowledge that the use of “Karen”, as a shorthand for a vocally entitled white woman who’s probably going to ask to speak with your manager, has caught on way more than “Becky” ever did – or maybe there are just far more reasons to use “Karen” this way lately.   

As for “why Karen”, well, I know I don’t have to spell this out for readers of this column in particular but… Karen was in the Top 10 names in the US throughout the 50s and 60s, and remained in the top 50 for the two decades following that, which means that calling someone a “Karen” is most definitely referring to a woman of a certain age. Yes, yes, yes, there are Karens who are younger, or who aren’t white (or who have never once in their lives called for a manager), but I’d wager the vast majority of us can picture at least one Karen who fits the profile we’re talking about here. 

Is this offensive? God knows I always thought the incendiary phrase that would fracture relationships between two generations would be stronger than “OK, Boomer” so I’m not going to sit here and definitively say it’s not offensive, because people get riled up about anything. But if the question is whether it should be considered offensive? Well… 

Let me just pull up a list of the literal decades’ worth of jokes in mass media about traditionally Black names like Shaniqua or D’Shawn, or every “hilarious”, i.e. extremely racist, Asian name like Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong. There are countless examples, and I was looking for a corresponding example of Indian/South Asian extraction, but none comes to mind, because Hollywood didn’t acknowledge that South Asian people existed before, like, 2003. 

“Right, but those are racist! So—”

They are. But, crucially, those name jokes were often THE ONLY REPRESENTATION of people of colour in the media, and they were crude, lazy, uninformed jokes. Somehow, I’m not quite so worried that the representation of white women is going to be formed solely on the punchline of “Karen” (though I’m sure there are people who think it should be.) 

And the idea that it’s a slur equivalent to the n-word, or that it’s uniformly sexist (beyond being a generally-accepted women’s name) is not only preposterous, but a retread of an argument that’s gone on for years, wherein people in positions of power try desperately to say that it’s okay for them to use racist terms because “Look, they do it too!” It’s never true, and trying to prove it is always shows the real agenda. We all know this, right? 

If your name becomes a cultural moment, in a song or a phrase like “Bye, Felicia”, it’s because it’s a name everyone has familiarity with. You can’t get offended if the familiarity means that your name is one of the ones that gains prominence in a way you don’t like, whether it’s because of a meme or a character on a show – that’s just an unexpected hurdle that doesn’t happen to, say, Herbert or Goneril. 

What you can do, of course, is take it with good humour and the knowledge that if you’re not actually behaving like one of *those* Karens nobody’s going to be lumping you in with them – and that you’re very free to be the anthesis of “that” kind of Karen so that the label starts not to make sense anymore, you know?