It must be something in the water that has white women resurrecting old “Karen” stories and writing think pieces about misunderstood white women whose recorded violent encounters with Black people turned into stories the authors say didn’t tell the whole story for one reason or another.
In July, opinion writer Pamela Paul got herself dragged up and down social media for writing a piece for the New York Times titled, Don’t Call Her ‘Karen’. It was written in defense of Sarah Jane Comrie, aka “Citi Bike Karen,” the white woman who was recorded while going full Karen over a Citi Bike being used by Black teens. Paul wrote from her white tearsy Caucasian perspective about how she believed Comrie, not the Black teens or their families, and about how the “Karen” phenomenon victimizes white women.
Now, another white author has taken to the Times to bring back an oldie but goodie, as Karen stories go, and write in defense of Abigail Elphick aka “Victoria’s Secret Karen.”
In a news article titled, ‘Victoria’s Secret Karen’ Video: Lawsuit Shows What Viewers Didn’t See, Tracey Tully wrote about how the “shaming” video—recorded by Ijeoma Ukenta, the Black woman Elphick is seen physically attacking—made Elphick look bad by not showing the story in its entirety. Now, normally, when white people go there, they are insinuating that something happened before the camera started rolling that might have justified the white offender’s actions. Or they might be arguing that the video was edited to make a white person look bad. But in this case, Tully is referring to something no video could possibly reveal and something the victim couldn’t have possibly known: Elphick suffers from a mental illness.
Here’s what Tully wrote:
To viewers of what quickly turned into a viral video, Ms. Elphick became known as the “Victoria’s Secret Karen,” a villain in a now-familiar genre of online fare.
But people watching online or at the store as the episode played out did not know that Ms. Elphick was disabled, with a long history of medical and psychological conditions, according to legal filings that shed new light on the encounter.
Such shaming videos have emerged in recent years as potent tools for exposing the casual and routine racism that Black people face in their daily lives. But two years after the Victoria’s Secret incident, the court documents, filed in recent weeks, show how they can also distort complicated interactions, reducing them to two-dimensional accounts.
Ms. Elphick, 27, lives in a complex reserved for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her behavior stemmed not from a “race-based” problem, according to a complaint filed by her lawyers, but from fear that being filmed would lead to the loss of her apartment and job.
There are a few things that are qu-white interesting about the way Tully is framing all of this. First, there’s the fact that nowhere in the article did she demonstrate that she knows the nature of Elphick’s mental illness outside of the court filing that says she has “a long history of medical and psychological conditions.” So, Tully doesn’t know and has no reason to think that mental illness is what caused Elphick to physically lash out at Ukenta and then immediately play the victim once the camera was on her—which is White Woman 101 in America whether the Karen in question suffers from mental illness or not.
Tully acknowledged that “Ukenta began recording the incident on her phone” and “the drama escalated quickly from there,” which is a curious way of describing what the video actually shows: Ukenta pulled out her phone just in time to catch Elphick taking a swing at her.
Tully also acknowledged that Elphick “lunged” at Ukenta, but she emphasized how Elphick “fell to the floor in tears, sobbing and begging that she stop recording her ‘mental breakdown.'” So, which is it? Did Elphick become upset because her “mental breakdown” was being recorded, or because she was afraid of “the loss of her apartment and job”? Because… the latter thing would be a rational fear as “Karen” videos have proven to result in Karens losing their jobs and residences, and for good reason. Either way, Tully acknowledges that Elphick was the physical aggressor in this confrontation. We see in the video that Elphick is moving aggressively toward Ukenta while screaming at Ukenta to stay away from her. Yet, Tully makes Elphick the victim of Ukenta, who somehow should have known better than to record the white woman who is attacking her because said white woman is having a breakdown.
Here’s the thing: Only to white people are Karens a new phenomenon. Black people have grappled for years, decades and generations with white people profiling us, minding our business, calling the cops on us and/or attacking us then playing the victim. For the vast majority of that time, we’ve had no recourse. Cops never cared, employers never cared, and white people wouldn’t stop because they had no repercussions to fear, unlike the Black subjects of their suspicions. Now, for maybe the last five years or so, we’ve had a way of taking action against Karens and their Ken counterparts and white people are whining about it on behalf of Karens. In truth, even with these recordings, white people still get away with this behavior more often than not.
Tully, like Paul, is simply following America’s default, which says white women are natural damsels in distress and any Black person who says otherwise is simply “race-bating.” Mental illness or not, what Ukenta knew was that she was being attacked and harassed by a white woman who was sure to get the benefit of the doubt when or if the police got involved unless she documented what happened.
Here’s another thing: When Black people suffer from mental illness, they still tend to be perceived as a threat. Besides the fact that there are plenty of videos circulating on the web showing Black people wilding out in public and white people never even seem to consider that they might be suffering from mental illness, case after case after case after case has shown that law enforcement often responds to Black mental breakdowns with deadly uses of force.
Jordan Neely was reportedly suffering from a mental breakdown when he was choked to death by white vigilante Daniel Penny, whom white people have largely defended. Many have claimed that Penny was right to take action because people were afraid of Neely.
At any rate, Tully isn’t writing in defense of these actual victims who are mentally ill and have been killed because of it—she’s writing in defense of Karen behavior. A Karen who initiated the confrontation. A Karen who only broke down once she saw she was being recorded. A Karen who never had to worry about being killed once the cops arrived.
All these pieces do is indicate how easy it is for white women to see themselves as victims and how difficult it is for them to view Black people through that same lens of privilege.
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