Updated at 10:24 a.m. ET on August 24, 2020.

What does it mean to call a woman a “Karen”? The origins of any meme are hard to pin down, and this one has spread with the same intensity as the coronavirus, and often in parallel with it. Karens are “the policewomen of all human behavior.” Karens don’t believe in vaccines. Karens have short hair. Karens are selfish. Confusingly, Karens are both the kind of petty enforcers who patrol other people’s failures at social distancing, and the kind of entitled women who refuse to wear a mask because it’s a “muzzle.”

Oh, and Karens are most definitely white. Let that ease your conscience if you were beginning to wonder whether the meme was, perhaps, a little bit sexist in identifying various universal negative behaviors and attributing them exclusively to women. “Because Karen is white, she faces few meaningful repercussions,” wrote Robin Abcarian in the Los Angeles Times. “Embarrassing videos posted on social media is usually as bad as it gets for Karen.”

Sorry, but no. You can’t control a word, or an idea, once it’s been released into the wild. Epithets linked to women have a habit of becoming sexist insults; we don’t tend to describe men as bossy, ditzy, or nasty. They’re not called mean girls or prima donnas or drama queens, even when they totally are. And so Karen has followed the trajectory of dozens of words before it, becoming a cloak for casual sexism as well as a method of criticizing the perceived faux vulnerability of white women.

To understand why the Karen debate has been so fierce and emotive, you need to understand the two separate (and opposing) traditions on which it draws: anti-racism and sexism. You also need to understand the challenge that white women as a group pose to modern activist culture. When so many online debates involve mentally awarding “privilege points” to each side of an encounter or argument to adjudicate who holds the most power, the confusing status of white women jams the signal. Are they the oppressors or the oppressed? Worse than that, what if they are using their apparent disadvantage—being a woman—as a weapon?

One phrase above all has come to encapsulate the essence of a Karen: She is the kind of woman who asks to speak to the manager. In doing so, Karen is causing trouble for others. It is taken as read that her complaint is bogus, or at least disproportionate to the vigor with which she pursues it. The target of Karen’s entitled anger is typically presumed to be a racial minority or a working-class person, and so she is executing a covert maneuver: using her white femininity to present herself as a victim, when she is really the aggressor.

Call Donald Trump “the ultimate Karen” if you like, but the word’s power—its punch—comes from the frequently fraught cultural space white women in the United States have occupied for generations. This includes the schism between white suffragists and the abolitionist movement, where prominent white women expressed affronted rage that Black men might be granted the vote ahead of them. “If intelligence, justice and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women be brought up first and that of the negro last,” declared Susan B. Anthony in 1869 at a conference of the American Equal Rights Association. (She was responding to the suggestion by Frederick Douglass that Black male enfranchisement was a more urgent issue than women’s suffrage.) There are also echoes in the Scottsboro Boys case, where eight Black men were wrongly convicted of raping two white women in 1930s Alabama; and the rape of the “Central Park jogger,” where the horrifying violence suffered by a white woman was the pretext for the state’s persecution of innocent men.

The tension is even more obvious in another infamous case. In August 1955, Carolyn Bryant Donham was 21 years old, and working in a store she owned with her husband, Roy Bryant, in the Mississippi Delta. A Black teenage boy walked into the store, and then—well, no one knows, exactly. Bryant Donham’s initial story was that he wolf-whistled at her. In court, later, she said he grabbed her, insulted her, and told her he’d been with white women before. Decades later, she said that she had made it all up, and couldn’t remember exactly what had happened.

None of that made any difference to the boy, who was hunted down by Roy Bryant and killed. His body was found days later, so mutilated that his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, which would force the world to witness what had been done to him. His name was Emmett Till.

That story is vital to understanding America’s Karen mythology. A white woman’s complaint led white male authority to enact violence on a Black person, and neither she nor they suffered any consequences. Roy Bryant and his half brother were put on trial for Till’s murder, but acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. Within a racist, patriarchal system, Bryant Donham’s fragility—her white femininity—was not a weakness, but a weapon, because she could always call on white men to protect her. (Yet even that case is more morally complex than it once seemed. In 2017, the Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson, who was researching a book on the case, discovered that Roy Bryant was physically abusive to his wife. “The circumstances under which she told the story were coercive,” he told The New York Times. “She’s horrified by it. There’s clearly a great burden of guilt and sorrow.”)

All of this is why the earnest feminist contribution to the Karen debate—why isn’t there a name for haughty, shouty men who make customer-service complaints, or call the police on Black people, putting them in danger?—is irrelevant. There doesn’t need to be a word for that, because the concept being invoked here is the faux victim. Although they differ vastly in magnitude, a direct line of descent can be traced from the Till case to the “Central Park Karen,” a white woman named Amy Cooper who called the New York City police earlier this year claiming that a Black male bird-watcher was threatening her. (Cooper lost her job and is facing criminal charges for filing a false report.) A white woman’s tears were, again, a weapon to unleash the authorities—still coded white and male, despite the advances we have made since the 1950s—upon a Black man.

The potency of the Karen mythology is yet more proof that the internet “speaks American.” Here in Britain, there is no direct equivalent of the Till case, and voting rights were never restricted on racial lines. The big splits in the British suffrage movement were between violent and nonviolent tactics, and on whether men under 30 should receive the vote before women. Yet British newspapers have rushed to explain the Karen meme to their readers, because Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—the prime sites for Karen-spotting—are widely used in this country. (In fact, the Karen discussion has spread throughout the English-speaking internet, reaching as far as New Zealand.)

At some point, though, the particular American history behind Karen got lost. What started as an indictment of racial privilege has become divorced from its original context, and is now a catchall term for shaming women online.

Not very much unites the rapper Ice T and the “alt-right” activist Paul Joseph Watson of InfoWars, but both can agree on this: Karens are a menace. In July, Ice T identified a “Karen of the Day,” tweeting a video of a woman who refused to wear a mask in a dentist’s office. It was another instance of the meme’s suspicious flexibility: Is a Karen a woman flouting the rules or pettily enforcing them? (Never mind the fact that research shows men are less likely to wear masks, anyway.)

Watson’s take was even more revealing, because he was not playing to an audience that considers itself progressive. That means he can say the quiet part out loud. In one YouTube video with nearly 1 million views, Watson defines a “Karen” as “an annoying, interfering female adult, who complains about everything.” The first clip in his compilation is of a man cycling past a woman, who tells the cyclist briskly but not angrily: “That’s not social distancing.”

Cut to Watson: “Okay, Karen.”

Cut back to the man on the bike, incredulous at being challenged. “Stupid bitch, shut up.”

This is the hazard of memes, as well as the phenomenon of viral shaming more broadly. There’s no arbiter to decide which Karens are really acting in egregious or racist ways before the millionth like or view is reached, or their names are publicly revealed. Karen has become synonymous with woman among those who consider woman an insult. There is now a market, measured in attention and approbation, for anyone who can sniff out a Karen.

Whenever the potential sexism of the Karen meme has been raised, the standard reply has been that it originated in Black women’s critiques of racism, that white women have more privilege than Black women, and that therefore identifying and chastising Karens is a form of “punching up.” In February, Aja Romano of Vox defined Karens as “officious white women ruining the party for everyone else,” adding that “Black culture in particular has a history of assigning basic nicknames to badly behaved white women … [from] Barbecue Becky and Golfcart Gail to Permit Patty and Talkback Tammy.” Calling the Karen meme sexist, according to The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, “only trivializes actual violence and discrimination that destroy lives and communities. And to invent oppression when none is happening to you? … That is peak Karen behavior.”

The best way to see the Karen meme is as a “scissor,” an idea popularized by the writer Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex to describe an incident or a statement that drives people to such wildly divergent interpretations that they can never be reconciled. Because white women can be both oppressors and oppressed, Karen is a scissor. Does the word describe a particular type of behavior that resonates because of the particular racial history of the United States? Yes. Is that the only way it is used? No.

As it happens, the casually sexist roots of the meme are as deep as the anti-racist ones. One of the foundational internet Karens was the ex-wife of a Redditor who chronicled their fraught relationship in the subreddit r/FuckYouKaren, created in December 2017. The intensity of the blowback when pointing facts like this out is itself instructive. The chorus of disdain that greets any white woman who questions the Karen meme comes from a broad, and unexpected, coalition: anti-racists and bog-standard misogynists. (Finally, a political stance to bring this troubled world together.)

For the same reason, the Karen meme divides white women themselves. On one side are those who register its sexist uses, who feel the familiar tang of misogyny. Women are too loud, too demanding, too entitled. Others push aside those echoes, reasoning that if Black women want a word to describe their experience of racism, they should be allowed to have it. Hanging over white women’s decision on which way to jump is a classic finger trap, familiar to anyone who has confronted a sexist joke, only to be told that they don’t have a sense of humor. What is more Karen than complaining about being called “Karen”? There is a strong incentive to be cool about other women being Karened, lest you be Karened yourself.

In her 1991 essay “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” the feminist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon referenced the Till case to explain the malignant stereotype that has grown up around the “white woman” in the United States. “This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother, and not economically exploited,” wrote MacKinnon. “She is Miss Anne of the kitchen, she puts Frederick Douglass to the lash, she cries rape when Emmett Till looks at her sideways, she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very well-manicured little finger.” She might have added, echoing the LA Times: Nothing worse happens to the white woman than a viral-video shaming.

MacKinnon’s point was that sexism existed, and even whiteness did not protect women from suffering it. (A response to MacKinnon by the Yale Collective on Women of Color and the Law contested some of her points, but agreed that feminism had to address the “very real oppression suffered by women, despite any access women may have to social privilege.”) Call the Karen meme sexist, though, and you will stumble into the middle of a Venn diagram, where progressive activists and anti-feminists can agree with each other: When white women say they’ve been raped, we should doubt them, because we know white women lie. And underneath that: What do white women have to complain about, anyway?

Ageism is also a factor. As a name, Karen peaked in the U.S. in the 1960s, and is now rare for newborns, so today’s Karen is likely to be well into middle age. As women shout and rant and protest in out-of-context clips designed to paint them in the most viral-friendly light possible, they are portrayed as witches, harridans, harpies: women who dare to keep existing, speaking, and asking to see the manager, after their reproductive peak.

In her essay, MacKinnon wrote that it was hard for women to organize “as women.” Many of us, she wrote, are more comfortable organizing around identities we share with men, such as gay rights or civil rights. “I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of any group that includes men than in being part of a group that includes that ultimate reduction of the notion of oppression, that instigator of lynch mobs, that ludicrous whiner, that equality coattails rider, the white woman,” she added. “It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed as opposed to inferior.” That is the minefield that anyone who wants to use the Karen meme to “punch up” has to traverse. You will find yourself in unsavory company alongside those who see white women as ludicrous whiners.

In 2011, writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledged the sexism that suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké faced from fellow abolitionists, and their sense of being told again and again that women’s rights were important, sure, but not urgent. Coates does not acquit these white suffragists of racial entitlement, but adds: “When the goal—abolition—was achieved, they hoped for some reciprocity. It did not come.” Without excusing their lack of solidarity, he attempts to understand it. The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the vote, came nearly 50 years after the Fifteenth, which ruled that voting rights could not be restricted “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

This uneasy history explains why the Karen debate has become so furious. It prods at several questions that are too painful for many of us to address. How far does white skin shield a woman from sexism? Do women “cry rape” with enough frequency to concern us, or is that another misogynist myth? How do Black women navigate competing demands for solidarity from their white sisters and their Black brothers? Does it still feel like punching up if you’re joined by anti-feminists such as Watson, and a guy on a bike who shouts “stupid bitch” at women he doesn’t like? And why is it okay to be more angry with the white women questioning the Karen meme than the white men appropriating it?

The Karen debate can, and perhaps will, go on forever, because it is equally defensible to argue that white women are oppressed for their sex, and privileged by their race. (“Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else,” in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase.) If successive generations of schoolchildren can see that, maybe adults can too. After all, the most potent echo of the Till case in literature comes from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, published five years after the 14-year-old’s murder. In the book, “white trash” Mayella Ewell testifies that her family’s Black neighbor, Tom Robinson, raped her.* It is a lie. The book’s hero, the lawyer Atticus Finch, exposes that lie only by also revealing Mayella’s real trauma: She came on to Tom, and was beaten savagely by her father, Bob, as a result. Bob Ewell’s capacity for extreme violence is further demonstrated when he attempts to kill Finch’s children in revenge for being humiliated in court. Mayella Ewell is half victim, half accomplice—a victim of male violence, and an accomplice to white supremacy.

Her story, therefore, is one of both complicity and oppression. It is not simple or easy. No wonder it was so challenging then, and no wonder our feelings toward her daughters, the internet’s hated Karens, are so challenging now.


* This piece previously mischaracterized the relationship between Tom Robinson and the Ewell family in To Kill a Mockingbird.