Whenever Black people collectively and specifically speak to the realities of anti-Blackness, there is often outraged and offended backlash from people who would rather racism continue unabated and—importantly—unacknowledged as racism. Because to acknowledge racism would necessitate people who consider themselves decent to actively work at eradicating it, or at the very least, call it out when they see it.
This is the context behind the journey of the word “Karen,” which firmly took its place in the national parlance in 2020—though the behavior which gave birth it has been documented since at least 1955, when Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, falsely accused Emmet Till of whistling at her and caused the 14-year-old Black child to be lynched by a mob.
The Root writers Michael Harriot and Damon Young have ably defined the Karen phenomenon of our times, outlining the behaviors that proliferated in viral videos during 2020 and have qualified numerous women for the catch-all term. Essentially, a Karen is a female aggressor who weaponizes her whiteness and gender to target violence against Black people through false accusations of harassment, false claims of assault, aggrieved police calls over Black people improving their homes and other innocuous behavior, and even with outright physical attacks on Black children with no provocation. Most times, Karens have been able to carry out these behaviors with little to no consequences—though the combination of social media and the sudden realization that racism exists in the U.S. (which captured the country briefly last year) has led to the public derision of culprits that shamed some into making apologies, as well as a law in New York that now classifies making false 911 calls based on someone’s race or other protected identity as a hate crime.
But even before the year was through, it was clear that the kind of casually cruel discrimination that has targeted Black people for policing and violence throughout 2020 and long before then, has not ended. On the day after Christmas, a woman who the internet dubbed “Soho Karen” and the New York Post has publicly identified as 22-year-old Miya Ponsetto, tackled a 14-year-old Black child because she decided, based on no evidence other than bigotry, that he stole the cell phone she had actually misplaced in an Uber.
The Root’s own reporting on the incident netted responses to our inbox from people offended at the use of the word Karen to describe Ponsetto, who has so far escaped apprehension by the NYPD—despite being found by more than one media outlet—and is now in California according to the NY Post.
Some would like to suggest that dubbing Ponsetto a Karen, or describing any problematic white woman as such (Ponsetto has reportedly identified most recently as Puerto Rican—a nationality that does not preclude one from being white) is an act of racism akin to, or worse than, the kinds of bigoted views that would lead someone to profile an innocent Black child as a thief.
The idea is patently ridiculous but took root almost as soon as the term Karen gained widespread popularity. In Twitter threads by upset white women and in Tucker Carlson’s nightly screeds on Fox News, the claim that Karen was akin to the N-word started spreading in 2020—even as Black people traumatized by recurring images of African Americans being murdered by police were marching across the country and imploring, once again, for our people to be treated as equal humans. While the idea that the word is a slur was expertly countered by writers like the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, it maintains power because it harkens to an oft-used strategy to avoiding tackling racism in America: accuse those who speak explicitly of its existence as being the actual problem.
Meanwhile, having absconded to California, there is the very likely possibility that Ponsetto will avoid facing any justice for assaulting a Black child, while his young life has been physically marked by the knowledge that he can be victimized by virtue of his skin color with other people watching and none but his Black father willing to stand up for him.
Until the eradication of that kind of pervasive racism happens in America, the white men and women who perpetuate and turn a blind eye to it will have to live with the minimal indignity of being comically categorized as purveyors of racist violence. Especially since they are so often shameless in their actions, and only feel a semblance of shame from being associated with that toothless name.