Below is an extract from a much longer essay in The Atlantic, by Helen Lewis, I would recommend reading the whole thing.
In her 1991 essay “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” the feminist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon referenced the Till case to explain the malignant stereotype that has grown up around the “white woman” in the United States. “This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother, and not economically exploited,” wrote MacKinnon. “She is Miss Anne of the kitchen, she puts Frederick Douglass to the lash, she cries rape when Emmett Till looks at her sideways, she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very well-manicured little finger.” She might have added, echoing the LA Times: Nothing worse happens to the white woman than a viral-video shaming.
MacKinnon’s point was that sexism existed, and even whiteness did not protect women from suffering it. (A response to MacKinnon by the Yale Collective on Women of Color and the Law contested some of her points, but agreed that feminism had to address the “very real oppression suffered by women, despite any access women may have to social privilege.”) Call the Karen meme sexist, though, and you will stumble into the middle of a Venn diagram, where progressive activists and anti-feminists can agree with each other: When white women say they’ve been raped, we should doubt them, because we know white women lie. And underneath that: What do white women have to complain about, anyway?
Ageism is also a factor. As a name, Karen peaked in the U.S. in the 1960s, and is now rare for newborns, so today’s Karen is likely to be well into middle age. As women shout and rant and protest in out-of-context clips designed to paint them in the most viral-friendly light possible, they are portrayed as witches, harridans, harpies: women who dare to keep existing, speaking, and asking to see the manager, after their reproductive peak.
In her essay, MacKinnon wrote that it was hard for women to organize “as women.” Many of us, she wrote, are more comfortable organizing around identities we share with men, such as gay rights or civil rights. “I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of any group that includes men than in being part of a group that includes that ultimate reduction of the notion of oppression, that instigator of lynch mobs, that ludicrous whiner, that equality coattails rider, the white woman,” she added. “It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed as opposed to inferior.” That is the minefield that anyone who wants to use the Karen meme to “punch up” has to traverse. You will find yourself in unsavory company alongside those who see white women as ludicrous whiners.
In 2011, writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledged the sexism that suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké faced from fellow abolitionists, and their sense of being told again and again that women’s rights were important, sure, but not urgent. Coates does not acquit these white suffragists of racial entitlement, but adds: “When the goal—abolition—was achieved, they hoped for some reciprocity. It did not come.” Without excusing their lack of solidarity, he attempts to understand it. The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the vote, came nearly 50 years after the Fifteenth, which ruled that voting rights could not be restricted “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
This uneasy history explains why the Karen debate has become so furious. It prods at several questions that are too painful for many of us to address. How far does white skin shield a woman from sexism? Do women “cry rape” with enough frequency to concern us, or is that another misogynist myth? How do Black women navigate competing demands for solidarity from their white sisters and their Black brothers? Does it still feel like punching up if you’re joined by anti-feminists such as Watson, and a guy on a bike who shouts “stupid bitch” at women he doesn’t like? And why is it okay to be more angry with the white women questioning the Karen meme than the white men appropriating it?
The Karen debate can, and perhaps will, go on forever, because it is equally defensible to argue that white women are oppressed for their sex, and privileged by their race. (“Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else,” in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase.) If successive generations of schoolchildren can see that, maybe adults can too. After all, the most potent echo of the Till case in literature comes from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, published five years after the 14-year-old’s murder. In the book, “white trash” Mayella Ewell testifies that her family’s Black servant, Tom Robinson, raped her. It is a lie. The book’s hero, the lawyer Atticus Finch, exposes that lie only by also revealing Mayella’s real trauma: She came on to Tom, and was beaten savagely by her father, Bob, as a result. Bob Ewell’s capacity for extreme violence is further demonstrated when he attempts to kill Finch’s children in revenge for being humiliated in court. Mayella Ewell is half victim, half accomplice—a victim of male violence, and an accomplice to white supremacy.
Her story, therefore, is one of both complicity and oppression. It is not simple or easy. No wonder it was so challenging then, and no wonder our feelings toward her daughters, the internet’s hated Karens, are so challenging now.