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Have We Reached Peak ‘Karen Video’ Yet?
Nearly all of these episodes are more morally complex than they at first appear.
IN JULY 2021, THE “KAREN” CHRONICLES—video recordings that purportedly show middle-class white women behaving in an entitled, overbearing, and usually racist way—got a new chapter with “Victoria’s Secret Karen.” The video, recorded in the lingerie store at New Jersey’s Short Hills Mall by Ijeoma Ukenta, a Nigerian-American lifestyle blogger, showed a young white woman lunging toward the camera, then bursting into tears and sinking to the floor. While Ukenta makes sarcastic comments, the young woman wails, flails, and begs, “Don’t film my mental breakdown—please!” Media accounts suggested that the white woman, identified as 27-year-old Abigail Elphick, had “chased” Ukenta around the store and tried to attack her. The police came and left with no charges filed. The story was widely covered as a racist incident—according to one radio host, the same “white fragility” that once led to the lynching of Emmett Till.
Now, details emerging from dueling lawsuits by Elphick and Ukenta reveal more of the story. The dispute began when Ukenta asked Elphick to move back and observe six-foot social distancing. An upset Elphick went to the cashier to complain; Ukenta took out her phone and started to film, and Elphick panicked, apparently scared of losing her job. (The “lunge” was an attempt to stop the filming.) Elphick, it turns out, has a history of mental health problems and lives in special housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A New York Times report that explored these details last month said that those who saw the incident online in 2021 were unaware of Elphick’s condition. But in fact, it’s not hard to find commenters from back then arguing that Elphick clearly had mental health problems. Even some who sympathized with Ukenta’s claim that she needed to document her innocence criticized her for continuing to record, and bait, a mentally ill person in a full-blown panic attack. But those voices were drowned out by those who talked about “holding Karens accountable” and accused Elphick of faking. Ukenta’s GoFundMe for her lawsuit raised $104,000; Elphick was reportedly deluged with harassment.
Now, there are some signs that the tide may be turned. After the Times report, for example, a tweet by progressive journalist Brian Krassenstein strongly criticizing the rush to judgment based on short clips without context quickly went viral.
WHILE THE TIMES ARTICLE clearly leaned toward treating the episode as a lesson on the perils of insta-outrage, it also quoted a scholar, the University of Michigan’s Apryl Williams, who defended Karen-shaming as a valuable anti-racist strategy.
There’s no question that some of the videos that go viral for exposing racist behavior really are exposing actual racist behavior. In 2018, a New York lawyer was filmed berating staffers at an eatery, and threatening to have them deported, for speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking customers. The notorious May 2020 Central Park incident in which white dog owner Amy Cooper called the cops after black birdwatcher Christian Cooper told her to leash her pooch may have been more nuanced than originally reported, since Christian Cooper evidently had a history of confronting leash scofflaws in a highly aggressive manner; even so, Amy Cooper made an explicit threat to tell the police she was being threatened by “an African-American man.”
However, a close look at many other viral “racism videos” shows incidents that involve out-of-context snippets (remember the “MAGA hat kids” supposedly harassing a Native American?) or complicated disputes in which mental health is often a key factor.
Take the drama that launched the “Karen” genre: the “Barbecue Becky” incident in April 2018. A middle-aged white woman approached several black people barbecuing in a lakeside park in Oakland, California and chided them for using a charcoal grill, saying it was illegal in that area. When she started calling the police, another white woman, Michelle Snider—a social justice activist married to one of the barbecuers—stepped in with a camera to accuse the woman of being anti-black. Snider posted her condensed video of the confrontation to YouTube, and “BBQ Becky” was soon lampooned as a bigot in countless memes.
Almost none of the media accounts acknowledged that “Becky” (a.k.a. Jennifer Schulte) was technically correct: charcoal grilling in that area was prohibited, and the police department had sometimes threatened to crack down on it because of complaints about coal dumping. One could still see Schulte as an obnoxious busybody, but the claim of racism is based solely on the fact that the people she approached were black. (Indeed, could it be that Schulte, an air quality/climate change specialist, was motivated by environmental concerns?)
If one doesn’t assume that “BBQ Becky” is a vicious white supremacist, Snider’s video looks less like righteous pushback and more like cruel bullying. It’s unknown whether Schulte has any diagnosed psychological condition; at the very least, she comes across as emotionally and socially impaired. (The police responders considered holding her for a psychiatric evaluation.) The video shows Schulte growing increasingly distraught under a barrage of taunts and accusations, especially after Snider follows her inside a nearby store and resumes the heckling. Yet her crying when talking to the police officers was widely mocked as manipulative “white women’s tears.”
Mental health issues were also key to the May 2018 scandal at Yale in which Sarah Braasch, a graduate student in philosophy, was pilloried for calling the campus police on a black female graduate student she found sleeping in the dorm lounge late at night.1 The story, with a video clip that showed a belligerent Braasch saying that she has every right to call the police, exploded on Twitter; the firestorm forced Braasch to leave campus.
Many assumed that Braasch—ironically, herself a progressive activist—was quick to see a black woman as an intruder rather than a fellow student. In reality, as I learned during an investigation for a 2019 Bulwark article, the “napping while black” incident was related to an ongoing dispute in which Braasch, a talented but deeply troubled woman, believed the lounge next to her room was being used to harass her. It was also the culmination of several years of conflicts with white, black, and Asian students and staff, and of complaints that ranged from justified safety concerns to obvious paranoia (e.g., allegations of stalking by a white maintenance worker Braasch had spotted in the vicinity of her room a couple of times). Yet the episode became a national story as an uncomplicated racial drama, with Braasch’s past scoured for alleged racist sins while her extensive history of psychiatric problems was ignored.
“KAREN SHAMING” GOT A NEW BOOST in 2020 from the “Cooper vs. Cooper” Central Park incident, closely followed by the racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But there have also been signs of discomfort with such tactics even in the progressive camp. In August 2020, Atlantic writer Helen Lewis questioned the sexism of memes that stigmatize women for being too loud or pushy. A year later, bestselling black author Frederick Joseph experienced backlash when he used his social media clout to get a young white woman fired over a dog-park dispute in which she used a phrase that could be read as racially charged (“stay in your hood”). Then other dubious claims by Joseph surfaced, and no less an antiracist activist than New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones suggested that his vendetta didn’t “seem like an ethical use of one’s platform.”
And just this past summer, the “Citi Bike Karen” episode in New York quickly saw the narrative shift from woman weaponizes her whiteness while trying steal a black kid’s rental bike to exhausted pregnant hospital worker renting a bike gets pushed around by teenagers hogging bikes between rentals.
More often than not, such dramas involve complex situations and competing claims. The racial profiling often experienced by black men and women is certainly real enough to make sensitivity understandable: While we’re not privy to the initial encounter between Ukenta and Elphick, Ukenta undoubtedly felt racially targeted when Elphick complained. Yet other vulnerabilities are real too. The “Karen” trope, for instance, can villainize a woman for being fearful of a male stranger who acts oddly or aggressively. And, of course, few groups are as vulnerable as people with mental disabilities. (While “Karen-shaming” is often based on the premise that any encounter with authorities can easily get a black person killed, mental illness is in fact the biggest risk factor for dying at the hands of police; it should also be noted this risk is extremely low for women of any race.)
The damage of even unintentional racial slights should not be dismissed. But the insistence on seeing every interaction through a racial lens easily turns toxic as well, especially when the public humiliation and punishment of accused offenders becomes the preferred mechanism for dealing with perceived slights—a mechanism that also lends itself to score-settling and outright grift by unscrupulous self-promoters.
IF “KAREN” HAS JUMPED THE SHARK with the Ukenta/Elphick reappraisal, how should we deal with “racism videos” in the future? One controversial remedy would be for large internet platforms to restrict all “shaming” videos, racial or not, in which the alleged misconduct is ambiguous or potentially out of context. News media should certainly do their homework before amplifying any narrative that convicts someone of a grave moral offense. And ordinary internet users should learn to beware of snap judgments, especially based on videos that appear to relish cruelty.
Lastly, we should strive to be aware of injustice without catastrophizing—and without reducing every human conflict to “punching up” or “punching down” based on identity. One can hope that the backlash against “Karen-shaming” is a step in that direction.
Correction (October 2, 2023, 4 p.m. EDT): As originally published, this article referred to Sarah Braasch as having been a law student at Yale at the time of the 2018 incident described here; the relevant sentence has been altered to note that she was a graduate student in philosophy. (She already had a law degree, among other degrees.)