What's behind the crying, screaming 'Karen' meltdowns that keep going viral? Experts explain

Kamilah Newton
·15 min read

For anyone who has been paying even the tiniest bit of attention to social media lately, it’s been hard to miss the increasing flood of “Karen” videos — footage of angry, dramatic, sobbing white women getting called out for scolding, spitting at, cursing at or even pointing guns at people, as in the now-infamous footage of the St. Louis personal-injury lawyer couple (dubbed “Ken and Karen”) who used firearms to threaten the peaceful protesters who passed by their mansion. But what is really going on here below the surface? And what makes these women flip out?

Yahoo Life checked in with some experts about what seems to trigger Karen meltdowns and what appears to be going on inside their heads. Their answers were enlightening, disturbing and yet somehow hopeful.

First, what is a “Karen”?

“Karen” is a pejorative term commonly used to describe an entitled white woman who is as likely to insist on seeing a manager for a minor infraction as she is to call the police on Black people going about their business. While Matt Schimkowitz of Know Your Meme told Insider that its exact origins are difficult to trace, he said the most "convincing" theory is that the archetype originated from a Dane Cook comedy special that aired in 2005.

But according to sociologist and professor Jessie Daniels, author of White Lies and Cyber Racism, whose forthcoming book Undoing White Womanhood looks at the history of how white women contribute to systemic racism, its roots, if not specific name, go back even further than that.

“A lot of people are responding to this Karen meme as if this is a new phenomenon, like somehow there’s this new emergence of white women behaving badly, and it’s simply not the case,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It’s very much of a piece connected to this longer history of how white women, going back to white women who were part of the slave-owning class of this country, behaved in brutal and violent ways.”

In fact, the archetype had names long before the popularization of Karen — such as “Miss Ann,” an older colloquial term used to describe the white women who were “the wives, sisters, daughters and mothers of slave owners in the Deep South,” known to harbor “virulent fear and resentment of Black people.” In recent years, such caught-on-film displays of racism inspired individual names for each woman — such as “Permit Patty” and “Gas Station Gail,” often shared with the hashtag “Living While Black.” And that main element of racism is why some social media users have criticized the term “Karen” for making light of what’s really going on in these videos. As one Twitter user says, “calling them Karens instead of racists is distracting from the fact that they enable and benefit from white supremacy.”

What triggers the meltdowns?

Natasha Stovall, a clinical psychologist self-described on Twitter as a “white lady” who is “putting whiteness on the couch,” tells Yahoo Life that the “level of hysteria” the women in these viral videos seem to experience shows that they’re “very triggered in a way that is pretty extreme — some of which involves projecting this idea of being attacked,” while some is simply aggressively attacking other people.

“I think what is going on underneath when somebody like that has a reaction,” she explains, “is defensiveness, and showing this sense of themselves as not a bad person, or not falling into a ‘bad’ category,” which, she says, is what most people understand “racist” to be. So by crying and screaming, she adds, these people are often “trying to hold on to a sense of themselves as a positive contributor to society and not someone that could be criticized.”

Delving deeper into the psyche of these women, Stovall says that much of the phenomenon can be attributed to cognitive dissonance, which is when a person’s beliefs and behaviors don’t align, causing them internal conflict. She says that the research around the theory “emphasizes this idea that when people experience cognitive dissonance, they’re usually trying to lower it, and there’s a number of ways you can lower it, but one of the main ways is to deny that there is any cognitive dissonance at all.”

But, Stovall says, “just because they’ve experienced cognitive dissonance doesn’t mean they try to resolve the dissonance.” In fact, she explains, that’s actually the opposite of what people do, while instead ‘they just try to arrange their thinking in a way that they don’t perceive the dissonance anymore.” She says some of the most common ways to do so is by denying that white privilege exists, minimizing it or trying to contextualize it, such as by instead blaming problems of race on the functions of class.

Stovall says that “what happens often is that once people start to really unpack why they don’t like the idea of white privilege or why they think it’s not valid, which is often a very emotional response, they wind up digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole.” That, she adds, often means saying things like “I don’t think that white privilege exists because it’s not as bad as it used to be,” “things are better now” or “why do we have to keep talking about this?” A lot of times, she says, “it’s a coverup for more dismissive attitudes about the experience of people who are Black and brown.”

What’s interesting to Stovall about the extremity of some of the caught-on-tape meltdowns, she says, “is the degree to which people act out in ways that they never would act out around any other subjects. People are simultaneously trying to hold on to this idea that they don’t care that much, and yet it’s so incredibly activating for them. This kind of behavior is something that’s being widely talked about, now out in public, as opposed to privately — but I think, obviously, it’s also something that people have been observing for centuries.”

Further, because the satisfaction that one gets from being right is often linked one’s self-image, “the idea that they would be questioned or scrutinized is completely intolerable, so there’s an aggression that they’re comfortable dishing out — but they also can’t withstand it at all,” she says. “Some people really feel that whiteness is a kind of narcissism, in terms of the psychological mindset, and it kind of makes sense, because narcissists are all about projecting — and they have an extremely fragile sense of themselves.”

Stovall tells Yahoo Life that she sees similar behavior often throughout her practice. “This dynamic of white people feeling very defensive when the question of race and white privilege comes up is something that I see a lot of, and I’ve definitely seen it in my personal life as well,” also admitting that “to some extent” she has experienced it herself.

Stovall references psychologist Janet Helms’s Racial Identity Development model, explaining that after “colorblindness” becomes awareness, “either you start to progress to the point of grappling with the fact ‘that this country is racist, you have privilege which doesn’t feel good, and what do you do about that?’ Or you start to deal with the cognitive dissonance by agreeing that white people are superior or that everything’s fine. The problem with these conversations is that sometimes people choose to go backward and return to this state of defensiveness. That’s a real problem, as the last four years have really shown us.”

How have Karens gotten away with their behavior for so long? Tradition.

Experts say that many factors are at play, including a lack of accountability for white women who “behave badly,” and another being the long-held societal beliefs about white women’s perceived innocence. The widely shared videos, Daniels tells Yahoo Life, “are a way of holding white women into account,” which is something she says doesn’t typically happen.

The depiction of the gun-toting couple in St. Louis, for example, is “very much in line with the way that white people are raised to believe in a particular kind of entitlement,” she says, adding that it’s also “gendered,” as “there are ways in which white men behave, and there are ways in which white women behave.”

For white women such as the gun-pointing Patricia McCloskey, she adds, “There’s a way in which this notion of goodness or innocence sticks … and they don’t ever face consequences for the behavior. Some people are saying McCloskey is going to be brought up on charges, and I’m just deeply skeptical that they’ll be any kind of repercussions for her at all because there are so rarely repercussions for white women in society. Highlighting that in 2014 was the Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, ongoing for years, which prompted thousands of white people to publicly confess various crimes they’d gotten away with.

“That trope of the innocent white woman who is being attacked by a superhuman, violent Black man is really central to the American culture and the American story,” Daniels says; the narrative, on film at least, can be traced all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, which received the privilege of becoming the first movie ever to have a White House screening upon release. (Daniels credits the work of Ida B. Wells for being “the first one to say this story about white women is a myth” and for setting Daniels on her path.)

But in real life, one of the most enduring examples of white women not being held accountable, Daniels says, comes out of the 1955 case of Emmett Till — the Black 14-year-old who was brutally killed after being accused of harassing a white woman in her family’s Mississippi grocery store. The accuser, Carolyn Bryant Donham, has never been held accountable for her connection to the lynching; while her initial story was that Till had sexually harassed her, she has since recanted. In 2017, historian Timothy Tyson’s book The Blood of Emmett Till revealed that Donham had confessed to him almost 10 years earlier, when she was 72, that she’d lied about that detail when she testified. “That part’s not true,” she told him, claiming that she couldn’t recall any other details about the incident.

As Daniels tells Yahoo Life, “There’s this assumption about white women’s innocence and inherent goodness who get to become the archetypal good mother — which sticks even to women like Carolyn Bryant Donham.”

In a 2018 Huffington Post opinion piece, Daniels wrote, “Bryant [Donham] is the foremother of contemporary white women who call the police on Black people sitting in a Starbucks, barbecuing in a park or napping in a dorm. These white women know their accusations have power, are readily believed and face few consequences for words that can and do end lives.”

She blames some corners of the feminist movement, in part, for furthering the injustice. “There’s this way in which white feminism expands to see white women as only victims — and that kind of white feminism, with no sort of critical understanding of race, is really part of the problem,” she says. “Except then these Karen moments get caught on video, and then people [in the media] have this horrible take like, ‘Well, we shouldn’t be shaming these women.’”

How does living “in a man’s world” play a part?

Stovall describes a white-woman archetype — one who may enjoy the idea of being more intersectional but has a very hard time understanding herself “as someone who, despite her best intentions, and despite her work, still has embodied certain white supremacist behaviors or attitudes.” That blind spot, she says, is very much a function of a “a man’s world.”

Out of that comes a way in which “white women are socialized to be in each other’s business and everybody else’s business, regulating everybody, making sure everybody is behaving — and that's in the service of white supremacy in addition to the service of patriarchy.”

So while there is certainly something about the topic of race or how they’re called out on their own racism “that triggers a psychological reaction that’s really out of the range of normal behavior,” Stovall explains, “it’s also possible that a Karen is somebody who’s doing this in a lot of other parts of their life too. This might not be their first instance of inappropriate policing of other people’s behavior.” And some of that, she says, “has to do with the burden that white women carry of being women. Being a good girl typically means pleasing everybody, so this idea that ‘people are going to be mad at you and you’re just going to have to live with it’” because of performative behavior that presents great optics and nothing more, “for a lot of white women, especially the more perfectionist and middle class, is something that is very counterintuitive — and yet it’s also probably a lot better for you than just being right.”

Also playing a role: Societal beliefs about who is most worthy of assistance

Daniels says that “the kinds of ways that we think about getting help in this society are really geared toward white women and their needs.” To illustrate this, she points to the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, a white New York City woman who was stabbed to death outside her apartment building in 1964 by a mentally ill Black man, and reportedly none of many neighborhood witnesses tried to intervene. There was no 911 system in place at the time and, Daniels notes, “911 is the system that grew out of, in part, the killing of Kitty Genovese.”

The reason that story galvanized so much attention, Daniels believes, “was that here was a white woman who didn’t get help, so how can we create a whole telecommunications infrastructure to help the next white woman?” Connecting it to today’s “Karen moments,” she says, “When Amy Cooper is in Central Park, and she’s calling 911, she’s not just calling the police on this one individual Black man — she’s accessing an entire system that’s been created with her in mind. Not only is there no accountability for white women, but there’s a particular way in which white women get all kinds of extra help in the system.”

Can Karens ever change?

In a word: Yes.

While sometimes having their racist behaviors called out can lead to aggression and defensiveness, Stovall says so-called Karens can also put themselves in positions to know better, so that they in turn do better.

Many white people, Stovall says, got a false sense of security about racism being over because of Barak Obama’s presidency. But with the growth of social media, publicized displays of racism have grown too, pushing people to a point where they can no longer ignore racism. “It’s not that people up to this point were totally oblivious,” she says, “it’s just that a lot of white people are able to live in a way where they insulate themselves so thoroughly from any awareness, or from being reminded that racism exists in a way that they don’t like.”

Further, she says that the bad behavior that’s put on display in these videos, “and also these deeper cognitive attitudes and emotional reactions, are very learned. Just like racism is learned for white people, it can be unlearned, and these behaviors can be unlearned as soon as you decide that you want to stop doing that,” Stovall says — even comparing the unlearning of racism to methods of substance-abuse rehabilitation, calling it “a lifetime of work.”

Because while people can work on their reactions and behaviors right away, “unlearning the deeper attitudes, thoughts and beliefs takes more time,” she says. “But as a white person, you don’t have to do it all at once. You can listen to the people of color around you, and to white people who have been doing this for a while, to begin the process of learning.”

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