What It Is Like to Come Across a ‘Karen’

12 August 2020

When two strangers walking by accused James "Jaime" Juanillo of damaging private property, the California man quickly began recording the incident. A short time later, he put the video on social media. Since then the video has gone viral, with people watching it more than 23 million times.

Juanillo told VOA he thought the two strangers were going to accuse him of a crime.

"I came up recording not because I thought there was a potential for a viral video," he said, "but because I believed that I was going to need to prove my innocence."

His "crime" was chalking a Black Lives Matter message on the wall in front of his home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. The 50-year-old Filipino American shares the home with his husband and some friends.

James Juanillo stands in front of his home in San Francisco.
James Juanillo stands in front of his home in San Francisco.

In the video, a woman and her male partner, both white, walk toward Juanillo and ask whether he lives at the property. They then say they know he does not live there and suggest he is breaking the law.

The woman is identified as Lisa Alexander.

In the video, Juanillo is heard calmly refusing to answer any questions. He told VOA that what he experienced is an everyday form of racism that demands "your acceptance of their superiority and their supremacy." The people making the accusations believe they have the right to "whatever answers [to questions] that they feel like" asking any person of color in any situation.

Alexander, the woman in the video, has been called a "Karen." The term is used to describe an entitled white woman who tries to use her position in society to make demands or threats without concern for the effect on others.

Where the term Karen first came from is unclear. Some say it comes from the 2004 movie "Mean Girls." Others say it came from humorist Dane Cook, who did a short piece about a friend nobody likes, a girl named Karen.

Wherever it came from, the term has changed over time, says Matt Schimkowitz. He works for Know Your Meme, a website that documents popular social media terms, viral videos and internet celebrities.

"I think that the term took on a more serious meaning in the past year," he told VOA. He said it has become a "white cop-caller nickname." In other words, it is for white people, usually women, "calling the police on people of color for just usually living their lives or doing their jobs."

The turning point for the term, Schimkowitz says, came in May. That is when a white woman called police after a Black birdwatcher in New York's Central Park asked her to leash her dog. In that area of the park, known as The Ramble, dogs are required to wear leashes.

The man, a 57-year-old Harvard-educated science editor, was Christian Cooper. He recorded the incident. In the video, the woman threatens to tell police there is "an African American man threatening my life."

Just who a Karen is continues to change with the times. The term is also now used for a white woman who tries to cough on people because she thinks the coronavirus is not real. Other people have used the term for a white woman reacting angrily in a store after being asked to wear a face mask.

No male comparison to the term Karen has grown popular yet. This leads many people to debate the sexist meanings of Karen, and why we use it, Schimkowitz says.

But he thinks the word has become such a part of American culture that its use will likely continue. It can describe a specific kind of person in just one word, he notes, and these days most people would rather read something short.

Back in San Francisco, the police who took the call about Jaime Juanillo recognized him as a neighborhood resident and left without incident. Alexander and her partner released a public apology after the video went viral.

Juanillo told VOA that racism doesn't only mean "being executed on the streets of America. Sometimes it means being questioned for why you exist and where you exist." Someone can call the police, who carry guns, on you for innocent actions, like making chalk art, on property that is not theirs, that they have no connection to, he said.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Dora Mekouar reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

viral - adj. spreading very quickly to many people especially through the Internet

potential - n. a chance or possibility that something will happen

chalking - v. writing or drawing something with a type of soft, light-colored rock

superior - adj. better than other people

supremacy - n. the quality or state of having more power, authority, or status than anyone else

entitled - adj. believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment

cop - n. a police officer

nickname - n. a name that is different from your real name but that people call you when they are talking to you or about you

leash - v. to attach a a long, thin piece of rope or chain to a dog or other animal

cough - n. to force air through your throat with a short, loud noise often because you are sick