My sister is a real Karen.

And by that, I mean her name is really Karen.

She just happens to be one of the many Karens getting regularly stung by the fact that her name has turned into a slang term to describe problematic White women.

The origin of the Karen memes that have become ubiquitous on the internet gets traced back to the Central Park Black birder incident, when a White woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher who had asked her to put her dog on a leash (which is the law). As the man films the incident on his phone, the woman says she will tell police that an African-American man is threatening her life if he doesn’t put down the phone.

It’s all-around unacceptable behavior on her part and not too surprising that she became a ridiculed meme.

Here’s the thing: Her name wasn’t Karen. As a matter of fact, her name was Amy. Why did Karen become the name chosen to pick on? That’s the Russian roulette of the zeitgeist. Someone thought it sounded funnier. But in those videos you see of middle-class White women using their privilege as a weapon against Black people, they aren’t really named Karen for the most part — they’re just labeled as “Karens.” So where does that leave the real Karens?

I’ll bet most of us know a Karen we love.

The Karen in my life was born almost 10 years before me and had a deep impact on my formative years.

When I was barely 5, Karen read the book “Edgar Allen” by John Neufeld to me. It was about a White family who adopted a Black boy and the racism they experienced from their neighbors. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about race and discrimination.

Growing up in the 1970s, the kitchen radio was tuned to KDTH, and the strains of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and Anne Murray was the soundtrack of the household. That is, until I started hanging out in the bedroom, where Karen played her records on the stereo. There I grew to love Billy Preston, the Stylistics, Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores and Roberta Flack.

I remember her pushing back on a family member who jokingly questioned the race of a guy she liked, based on the sound of his name. The guy was Black, and although the conversation was under the guise of humor, she was having none of it and said so. She was maybe 19 and I was 9 at the time. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but I knew she was right.

That I remember the moment more than four decades later tells me it left an impression.

The latest memes are about “COVID-Karens” who refuse to wear masks and consider the coronavirus a hoax.

Last week, I sat beside my sister Karen, volunteering at a vaccine clinic. She is the consummate volunteer, willing to help with anything she cares about. The vaccine clinic was something she really felt called to do. It was her small way to help amid this pandemic.

As a child (well, and as an adult, too) I was always playing with words and language in my head. Caring was the word I most strongly associated with Karen, so that whenever I said her name, carin’ was what appeared in my mind. Synonymous.

I like funny memes, but I’m pretty over the Karen thing. It feels a bit harsh on women of a certain age, and could just have easily been Paula, Marsha, Linda, Nancy, Debbie or Donna. Calling out people for bad behavior is fine by me, but we can find a better way to do it.

Email Gilligan at

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