The insult, popularized last year by an internet meme, broadly refers to an entitled White woman who is unafraid to use her privilege to make unreasonable demands.
Parliament had been debating New Zealand’s hate speech laws, with Ardern’s government proposing harsher penalties for inciting discrimination and violence. The proposal comes in response to the deadly 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks. A Royal Commission inquiry afterward concluded the law did not adequately deal with hate speech and hate crime, and recommended stronger measures.
But the proposed changes have been sharply criticized by opposition parties, who argue it would infringe on freedom of speech and that existing laws are sufficient.
“Will calling a middle-aged white woman a ‘Karen’ now be a crime under Jacinda Ardern’s law?” tweeted Judith Collins, opposition leader and head of the center-right National Party, on Tuesday.
Collins reiterated her opposition to the law in parliament Wednesday, arguing it would “shut down debate on hate speech.”
“I disagree with that statement,” Ardern replied. “I also, as it happens, disagree with (Collins’) statement on Twitter, that somehow it will become illegal to call someone a ‘Karen.’ That is absolutely incorrect, and I apologize, that means these laws will not protect that member from such a claim.”
The statement was met with laughter and scattered applause from other members of parliament, and a tight-lipped smile from Collins.
The term, which several groups and dictionaries named “word of the year” in 2020, has people divided. Some think it’s sexist, while others say it’s a placeholder for speaking about the casual racism and privilege exhibited by some White women.
The use of “Karen” to signify a certain stereotype of Whiteness isn’t new, or even singular – there was also “BBQ Becky,” the nickname given to a White woman who called police over a group of Black people barbecuing in a public park in 2018.
But “Karen” became widely used in 2020 thanks to the cultural force of Black Twitter, and the frustrations over racial injustice that boiled over during the Black Lives Matter protests. A number of incidents that went viral online – including a White woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher for asking she leash her dog in Central Park – further thrust the term, and the problems it connotes, into the spotlight.