Dry your eyes Karens – you have no idea what real name discrimination looks like

Imagine this: three women, who refer to themselves as ‘Karens’, are being interviewed by a national broadcaster. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, in the wake of international race reformations and while hundreds of thousands of Britons are losing their jobs, they take their issues to millions of viewers to complain about a name-related euphemism. 

They sit in their pristine living rooms and explain how recent #BlackLivesMatter protests caused their birth names to become a burden. They’ve now made a campaign to reclaim the name Karen.

While Twitter erupted with parody memes and hashtags like #peakKaren, the publicity offered to these women made myself and others, who have experienced racially fuelled discrimination based on our names, deeply uncomfortable.

Being harassed because of a name that you never chose is not nice – ask any child from an ethnic minority background. 

When the internet produced YouTube videos mocking names associated with Black women like Shaniqua, which is brandished as ‘ghetto’, there were no ITV hosts to offer their sympathy. 

When men named Mohammed were being bullied in school, stopped at airports and are three times less likely to get a job interview than a person named Adam because of systematic Islamophobia, petitions were not signed in solidarity. 

I laugh along and roll my eyes when microaggressions are thrown my way because, despite recent conversations surrounding racism, I am still more likely to be painted as oversensitive or angry when addressing covert discrimination rather than receiving an apology.

Almost every time I’ve introduced myself with my full Arabic name ‘Shayma’, whether in a school playground or in a professional newsroom, it is predictably compared to the English word ‘Shame’.

I once had a colleague joke that they should just call me Shamima Begum because the office already misspelt it, and I was a brown woman. I, like many other Britons growing up with non-English names, have been taught to have thick skin and live with subtle intolerances in society. 

But I’ve also been told to abbreviate my name to a more palatable and racially-ambiguous nickname on CVs, and that always stops me in my tracks. 

It is a depressing reality to know that I have to hide my ethnicity just to get the same shot as a woman named Karen in an interview. 

People of ethnic minority backgrounds are expected to keep a stiff-upper-lip with all facets of an intolerant world – even when their names determine their social mobility.

The issue with this televised Karen campaign, though they argue they are not racist or resemble the caricature they share titles with, is that they are using the same white privilege as the women who harm Black and non-Black people of colour for support. 

The media continues to pander to the fragility of only one race in a multicultural debate that is attempting to unpick deeply-rooted disparities in British society.

Articles that argue the term is sexist, ageist and classist are often drenched in exclusionary white feminist thought. 

After George Floyd, an African American man, was killed by disproportionate police brutality, the mechanisms that uphold institutional racism have been called into question. 

Complex social interactions – like the racially loaded action of a white woman calling the police on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper – were called out on Twitter, and the gross misuse of white female privilege was coined into the umbrella term ‘Karen’, which went viral. 

In fact, there are 4.1billion views on TikTok for videos under the #Karen hashtag. 

During their appearance on ITV’s This Morning show, these women said ‘that we, as Karens, can’t talk about how this is affecting us because we are told that we are entitled if we do this’. 

But the term has opened up uncomfortable dialogues across social media, and it has encouraged white women to interrogate their unique role in perpetuating a cycle of unjust violence in policing, education, housing and social spaces. 

These white women – who call the police because children are playing in bouncy castles, or scream false accusations that they are being attacked by a Black man who is a metre away – manipulate unequal power structures that favour them because of their gender, their age and their class. They use it to disempower and demonise their targets, knowing they won’t be protected by a broken system. 

The harmless Karens, who call up mainstream TV stations knowing their issues will be platformed, are also relying on this power.

It’s obvious that not every woman named Karen is problematic. I am sure many have positioned themselves as allies in the fight to dismantle racism in the UK. 

However, the term itself has been productive. It has opened up a taboo discussion around the overlap of gender, white privilege and the systemic phenomenon of racialised police communication for younger generations and international audiences. 

In California, a proposed bill that seeks to ban racially-motivated police calls without reasonable suspicion of a crime has been named after the acronym CAREN, which stands for ‘Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies’.

The term Karen has evolved past an individual’s name, and it now symbolises change.

If anything can come from the negative connotations surrounding Karen, it could be a shared empathy from white women towards those who are truly disadvantaged or even harmed because of their names, their race and their religion. 

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