Footage of the Victoria’s Secret “Karen” at a Northern New Jersey mall has made its rounds. In the multiple videos, a White woman appears to go from full-on unprovoked aggressor to full-blown fake victim in a matter of moments. She first appears to lunge at the Black woman shopper who is filming the incident, only to start wailing and demanding the Black woman stop recording her with the camera on her phone.
The rest of the videos show the White woman chasing the Black woman around the store, and even purporting to faint. She reportedly went to police, claiming to have suffered a panic attack because the Black woman had been recording her.
Throughout the ordeal, neither the shoppers nor staff appear to make a sincere effort to protect the Black woman. Neither do mall security nor local police, once they show up.
The video struck a chord for many — “Karen” and “Victoria’s Secret” were trending on social media on Tuesday, after the videos went viral on TikTok.
As a Black woman, I know all too well what a White woman’s feigned tears and tall tale can do. I have survived the wailing blond co-worker who seeks comfort from our peers by claiming I “attacked” her because I respectfully held her accountable. I’ve weathered the executive assistant who became hysterical when I asked that she hold her questions until the end of my presentation. Publicly maligned, I’ve endured the entitled shopper who refused my request to respect the six-foot standard for social distancing. Karens have put me through it. And like the Black woman in Victoria’s Secret, I’ve been through it alone.
Unlike White women, Black women do not enjoy the presumption of innocence. Neither vulnerability nor tenderness is ascribed to us. Stereotypes in tow, society labels us the “angry Black woman,” “strong Black woman,” brash, immoral, wild. Such harmful narratives not only rob us of our humanity but leave us unprotected, allowing others to victimize us out in the open with impunity. White women have, for so long, capitalized on these tropes, oftentimes doing so to evade facing consequences for their own actions.
For Black women, a “Karen” — a privileged, racist White woman — can bring real consequences. Their misogynoir and mischaracterizations have cost me only professional opportunities and restful nights, brought censure. But if some got their way when they call police purporting to be victimized by a Black woman, women like me could end up incarcerated. Innocent Black women are more likely than women of other races to be funneled into the criminal justice system due to the same systemic racism that Karens are hoping to leverage.
In such instances, what appears to be shapeshifting from true aggressor to faux victim is often nothing short of a racially motivated powerplay. It may be fully calculated from start to finish, or it may be an unconscious byproduct of her White female privilege; regardless, it is effective. Even if the Karen is clearly in the wrong and her behavior beyond abhorrent, the combination of her Whiteness and femininity can garner sympathy from observers.
Suddenly, Karen’s well-being takes center stage. The spotlight shines on understanding her response and brightens to justifying her behavior. She begins enjoying the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she’s under a lot of stress? Maybe it’s mental illness? Mental health affects many, but many are not afforded it as a scapegoat.
Racism is not a mental disease or defect. It is a choice. Conscious or unconscious — a decision is made to feign fear, falsify an attack, manipulate others with crocodile tears. Karens have been indoctrinated by a society that uplifts white supremacy, granting them privileges over non-White people regardless of gender. If anyone’s mental health instinctively deserves concern in these encounters, it should be that of Black women.
Black women are facing an overwhelming mental health crisis. At every turn, both our race and gender remain under siege. From the ongoing racial reckoning fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement to the call for gender equity in all aspects of life, Black women suffer never-ending stressors that arise on both sides. Yet according to experts, Black women are less likely to receive mental health services due to issues concerning health-care providers and finances; not to mention hurdles created by misogynoir built into the system. Indeed, most “evidence-based” mental health treatments were developed using research and experiments on White people. As a result, these treatments may miss the mark when it comes to alleviating the unique stressors Black women face — such as encounters with Karens. Even so, it still seems easier for Black women to secure mental health services than true justice.
There’s little legal recourse for Black women who suffer at the hands of a Karen. Unless pushed by people in power, law enforcement seems unlikely to pursue charges, and prosecution and conviction rates tend to be lower when the victim is Black. A civil suit too may not pan out in light of the commitments in finances and time. (It also may not be worthwhile to sue if a Karen is anywhere near as broke as her antics.)
Ultimately, Black women face great consequences but have few options when it comes to surviving incidents like the one that just went viral. Until our society relinquishes the racist stereotypes and Black women are afforded due regard and dignity, the only real protection we have may be the cameras on our phones.
Adrienne Lawrence is an attorney and a principal consultant for Jennifer Brown Consulting, where she specializes in educating on systems of oppression. She is also the author of the award-winning book “Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment.”