Karen Taylor Mitchell never considered changing her name before May 2020. That’s when a video went viral of the “Central Park Karen,” a woman who called the New York City police because she felt threatened by a Black man who was bird watching.
“Karen” quickly became synonymous with any intolerant woman who uses her white privilege to get her way. Since then, it’s devolved into a pejorative placeholder and meme for any self-righteous female.
“Karen is the word ‘bitch’ for the digital age,” Mitchell said.
A nonprofit consultant who now goes by Kaomi, Mitchell is trying to reclaim her given name from the haters. In January, the 55-year-old Colchester woman launched TheRealKaren.com, a website devoted to changing the narrative by highlighting the thousands of Karens who’ve made positive contributions to society.
The site features short bios of such notables as Karen Tse, a Chinese-American anti-torture activist; Karen Thompson, an LGBT activist in Minnesota; and Karen Silkwood, a nuclear industry whistleblower from the 1970s.
Mitchell also launched a Facebook petition called “Friends of Karens Pledge,” which asks people to stop using the name as a misogynistic stereotype or sharing memes that do so.
Mitchell said she first experienced hostility toward her name after she became an Airbnb host. While participating in an online owners’ forum, someone in the group posted a message about a guest she didn’t like, then tagged it #Karen. When Mitchell asked the group’s moderator to remove the Karen slur, other Airbnb owners accused her of being entitled, thin-skinned and racist.
Since launching the website, Mitchell has discovered a lot of women in the same predicament. She now belongs to an online support group of more than 1,800 women who’ve experienced hostility and ridicule merely because they’re named Karen.
“People don’t realize that, caught in the Karen crossfire are millions of people with who have PTSD, depression or anxiety, or they’re 82, and they don’t understand what’s coming at them,” Mitchell explained. “It’s just become a lesson in how we manufacture hate.”
The fallout from such Karen caricatures can be more than a mere nuisance, but actually erase their identity. As the Wisconsin State Journalreported in September, several parents asked the Madison Metropolitan School District to remove the word “Karen” from the section of its online student enrollment form used to identify a child’s ethnicity. Karen can refer to ethnic minorities from Asia, chiefly Myanmar. An estimated 215,000 Karen people live in the U.S., including dozens in the Burlington area. (A spokesperson for the Wisconsin school district told Seven Days that the change was considered but never made.)
The kick-the-Karen trend was enough to convince some people to alter their identity. Kali Zohar is a newly retired schoolteacher who changed her name last year from Karen, shortly before her move from Aspen, Colo., to southern California. In 1965, the year she was born, Karen was the third most popular girl’s name in the U.S.
“It didn’t feel great to all of a sudden have my first name be [seen as] the exact opposite of who I am,” Zohar said. “I’m a public schoolteacher, I tip very well and I’m kind to service people. It was very disconcerting.”
Other Karens, however, plan to ride out the storm. Karen Kish, a retired high school English teacher in Essex, said she hasn’t personally experienced harassment or ridicule for her name but knows other Karens who have. When she meets or speaks to women named Karen, she often asks how they feel about their name’s negative connotation.
“Ten out of 10 times, they are sad or angry about this phenomenon, which has only existed since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “I am stubborn and I think the people who do this are wrong, so I’m going to keep my name and it doesn’t bother me.”
Recently, Kish found an outlet for her ire. In October, Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” referred to a woman who participated in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as an “alpha Karen.”
Since then, Kish has been writing to Colbert once a month asking him to quit his Karen bashing. The irony, she noted, was that, on the same show, Colbert ran an apology to the people of Milwaukee for disparaging their city. The late-night host traveled to Milwaukee, attended a Brewers’ game and even had an apology beer made for the occasion.
Kish thinks that America’s Karens deserve equal treatment.
“There are fewer people in Milwaukee than there are Karens in the United States,” she added. “So he owes us an apology, too.”
Kish suggested that Colbert travel to Vermont and scoop some Ben & Jerry’s "Americone Dream" — the ice cream flavor that features his face — for local Karens and their families.
Kish has yet to hear whether Colbert will dish it out for dishing on Karens.