It’s a scene we unfortunately see too often now: A white woman pulls out her phone to call the police to patrol Black people in public spaces. The woman is captured on video, occasionally with her phone to her ear. Her image spreads on the internet as a meme, her actions satirized, a humorous take on an otherwise dangerous situation. Recent examples include “Barbecue Becky” and “Central Park Karen,” who are among the memes studied by Apryl Williams, a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Williams, an assistant professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, explained the history and implications of the images during a recent Berkman Klein event. In conversation with BKC fellow Allissa Richardson, she deconstructed the role of Karen memes today and the systems of racial inequality that have formed the building blocks for these confrontations.
Memes, and internet memes in particular, are “coded images that have a lot of intertextuality, meaning to decode a message, you often need to be in conversation with a lot of the different images that those memes reference,” she said. “You definitely need the cultural significance to inform your own understanding of what a meme is and how it functions in society.”
The Karen memes, commonly associated with being “entitled white women” who police Black people, are artifacts of recent years, but they perpetuate trends going back for centuries, Williams explained. “When slavery was dissolved, white women and white people as a whole certainly benefitted from maintaining the power differential. Even though slavery was no longer in place, white people still wanted to maintain the idea that Black people and people of color were less than. And so even though we like to believe that we are post-racial, that we’ve moved so far beyond the days of slavery, it’s just not true,” she said.
“Ultimately a lot of those same ideologies from the slave days really underlie these same kinds of Karen practices, the idea that white people are superior and that there should be some natural order or that Black people for some reason are just nefarious. They’re born bad, and so they deserve to be patrolled.”
In a stark example of white women “perform[ing] racialized fear,” Williams drew parallels between “Central Park Karen,” who falsely claimed she was being attacked by a Black man in May 2020, and Emmett Till, who was falsely accused of assaulting a woman and brutally murdered in 1955.
By turning Karen recordings into memes, internet creators are drawing attention to these common acts of aggression that may otherwise be overlooked — and holding the women accountable for their actions.
“They are helping us have this dialogue about casual racism or seemingly casual racism, because it’s not actually casual. But it appears to be when it happens on camera and we can sort of laugh about it,” she said. “And they also call for restitution. They’re saying it’s not okay for you to do this. We’re not going to tolerate it.”
As memes, the Karen figures become a source of satire, especially as they became a more recognizable trend over the years.
“That humor really helps us to cope with trauma, especially as a collective,” Williams said. “There’s always the saying that laughter is the best medicine, and we’ve actually found that to be true — that in a lot of cases humor can really help you to relieve the stress. And so I like to think of the memes in particular as this collective release of stress. Black people are laughing together through the pain of, ‘oh, someone could have died today.’”
Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, pointed out that the Karen memes inspired recent legislation around the country and asked Williams to elaborate.
Williams explained that the “CAREN” Act — which stands for “Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies” — “would make it a hate crime to call the police for a racially-exploitative non-emergency.” The CAREN Act was introduced in California, but similar initiatives are emerging in other states as well. Williams recalled talking with Oregon Rep. Janelle Bynum about her legislation and the importance of memes in bringing the issue to light.
“The power of memes is they connect the dots for people. They make it really easy to see that there’s a pattern,” Williams said. “It’s not just this one instance.”