How Are the Karens of Phoenix Holding Up?

Name unknown. Possibly Karen.
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Name unknown. Possibly Karen.
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The whole “Karen” thing — using the name Karen to chastise anyone who’s being loud, acting entitled, or “calling for the manager” — is at least a couple of years old now. Karens, according to cellphone footage and clusters of memes, are middle-aged, white, and demanding; usually, they wear their blonde hair in a bob and like to start fights at barbecues. Often, we hear, they are racist.

Recently, Karen came to Arizona in a big way. On June 6, a convenience store customer named Tamara Harrian told a Native American customer that she needed to go back to “her country.” The young woman responded by slapping Harrian across the face. Yet another customer caught the scuffle on tape, and several million viral video views later, Arizona Karen was born.

I figured my local friends named Karen were already unhappy about having their name turned into shorthand for “bitchy white racist,” but now, I guessed, they’d really be pissed about Karen-calling in their own backyard.

It turns out I was mistaken.

My friend Karin Ainley, whom I’ve known since we both worked at a record store chain in the early 1980s, tells me she thinks the Karen thing is a scream.

“I belong to a Facebook group called Karen memes,” she says when I telephone her to talk Karens. “If I need a laugh I go there. There are so many good ones. Like today there was a photo of a Karen checking her luggage at the airport, and her suitcase had her picture taped to it. And the caption was ‘I’m not gonna speak to the manager today!’ It was hilarious!”

Well, maybe not hilarious. But Karin is amused, anyway. The only thing she takes exception to, she says, is the idea of “Karen” as a synonym for white entitlement. She thinks the Karen problem is generational, not race-related.

“It’s crotchety women wanting what we want,” she corrects me. “People my age were taught to speak up when we don’t get satisfaction. So if we’re calling for the manager it’s because we were told to get things right.”

I call my friend Karen Thompson to ask her about this.

“Oh, girl, no,” says this Karen, an African-American woman I’ve known since junior college. “The Karen who told you that is definitely a white lady.”

Overall, Karen Thompson thinks, the Karen trend has an upside. “I’m not on social media,” she reminds me, “but I happen to enjoy hearing my name used to call out noisy white people.”

Maybe, she suggests, she’s getting mean in her old age. “Or maybe I’m just glad to see anything that unites people. That Arizona Karen? She didn’t get famous for doing anything good. We all saw the video, and we all agree that she’s a big smelly asshole. I’ll take my unity where I can get it.”

Like Karin Ainley, my longtime friend Karen Kolbe, who went to high school with my husband, finds the Karen thing pretty amusing.

“I’m not feeling self-conscious about my name,” she says, “but it’s not lost on me that I can never ask for the manager ever again. They’d be like, ‘Okay, Karen!’ That might be the only downside to this whole thing.”

Karen Kolbe feels that Karens complaining about having their names misused are demonstrating that they’re Karens. She tells me she thinks there are better names for entitled women who cause public scenes.

“I would personally nominate Shelly,” she tells me. “How does Shelly strike you? I’ve never known a Shelly that wasn’t a total bitch. Shelly or Patty would be my go-tos, but I’m not in charge.”

I phone my high school friend Karen Pennington Weiss, who taught me to process and print black-and-white film in 1979. She tells me her mom named her Karen so that no one could come up with a cute nickname for her; her mother hated nicknames. Karen sounds bored when I ask her about how her name’s lately being used.

“It’s just another way to categorize people,” she sighs. “Specifically, it’s an ageism thing. I work in a clinic with a lot of young people, and they act like all middle-aged white people are useless and in the way. If I point out something I’ve learned in my years of nursing, then I’m being a bitch. Although I’m probably not allowed to say the word ‘bitch’ anymore. Am I allowed to say ‘bitch’?”

I promise her she can say “bitch” whenever she likes, and then I call Karen Bayless Feldman, my friend who’s a lobbying specialist at the Secretary of State’s office. She tells me she’s been complaining about her first name since she was old enough to realize “how white” it was.

“I’m half Hispanic, but there’s no proof whatsoever,” she says. “I’m very light-skinned, but my mother is a Latina who married a white guy. And my name is Karen, so it just further erases any inkling that I am Latina.”

In her 20s, Karen tried changing her name to Consuella. It didn’t take. “I wanted to do it because I needed a way to tell people who I was. I have to tell people, because when you hear my name, you’re not going to think, ‘Wow, she’s half Hispanic.’”

Regardless of their color, she swears the Karens are real. “They did not just appear out of nowhere with their three kids and their mini-vans, asking to speak to the manager,” she explains. “I have three kids, I used to drive a mini-van, and I have asked to speak to the manager. I used to think of it as self-advocacy. But now it’s about calling the authorities to bring harm to other people. So I won’t be asking for the manager anymore.”

She refuses to complain about the Karen thing. “I can’t say not to use my name for something bad because that’s reverse racism. I don’t believe reverse racism exists. People of color have been treated like crap for 400 years, so watching my name being used like this is nothing in comparison.”

In fact, Karen Bayless Feldman thinks the whole Karen thing is “ingenious.”

“I can’t think of another name that screams ‘50-year-old lady who read The Help and still voted for Trump’ as much as my name does,” she admits. “Jennifer? Nancy? No. Karen makes sense.”

Before we hang up, she tells me how her daughters, who have always called her Karen, told her that it’s okay if she wants to change her name.

“They suggested Harper, who’s this quirky character from Wizards of Waverly Place who dresses funny,” she told me. “They thought I could take her name instead, to get away from the whole Karen thing. I told them, ‘Sorry. I’m Karen. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just Karen.’”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela