ArtsCancel Culture

My name is Karen

Singer Karen Bishko discusses the notion of “Karen-ness”.

Singer, songwriter and NyLon socialite Karen Bishko explains why she wrote a song about her name…

I stopped loving my name in May of this year. 

A woman named Amy called the cops on a black man in Central Park because he asked her to put her dog on a leash (as is the law), and every Karen in the world somehow became an accomplice. While the term “Karen,” as a pejorative for a privileged white woman, did not originate from the vile actions of that woman in Central Park, the event set off a media storm that brought the notion of “Karen-ness” centre stage. I will admit, at first I found several Karen-related memes hilarious. (And yes, I have asked to speak with the manager once or twice…and I bet you have, too.) But when the name began to be used as a symbol for not simply privilege but abject racism, I could no longer laugh at it. 

No one names themselves. As such, most names were conceived before the conceptions of those who carry them. That is certainly the case for me. In Hebrew, Karen means ray of light. It is the name I was given—lovingly, introspectively—by my young, Jewish immigrant parents who left South Africa in 1972 in rejection of Apartheid, a malignant system that they could neither accept nor change. My mother Barbara (which has roots in Greek, meaning traveler from a foreign land and in Hebrew, as Batya, meaning daughter of god) and my father Roy (meaning king in Anglo-Norman England and the good who sees me in Hebrew, as Roi) were named by parents who fled Germany just prior to the Holocaust and who escaped Russia respectively. My family’s story is typical of many Jewish families. It is a story of diaspora fueled by other people’s prejudices. It is a story of Otherness. It is, thankfully, since my parents were able to establish themselves in England in the mid-1970s, a story of opportunity and success and, yes, privilege. But I was not named by parents who called the manager. I was named by immigrants who started with little, who themselves were named by immigrants who started with less and then, fleeing the specter of tyranny, started anew with nothing. To hear my name spoken of as an insult, to hear it become shorthand for racism and intolerance, both saddens and infuriates me. 

Middle aged women of all backgrounds—though to varying degrees—have been marginalised for so long. Why must we perpetuate this? It’s very telling that there is no male equivalent. No Rob or Richard. Why? Because it’s ok for white middle-aged men to get angry? But it’s not ok for women? It’s a sexist term and sadly, it seems to be employed most often by young women. Recently on social media, women were posting photos and messages and hashtags in support of other women, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these same women bandy about “Karen” as an insult to denigrate another woman and reaffirm their own moral purity.  We are in times of much needed change and I understand, historically speaking, that a swinging pendulum is bound to knock people down. But that doesn’t mean it’s always right, or that those who are hit are disqualified from speaking solely on account of their social or economic position. Young women need to realise that one day they’re also going to be middle aged and they will still need their voice. They will still need their names. 

You can watch the video for Karen’s song above.

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Karen Bishko

Karen Bishko is a British singer-songwriter living in New York City. In 2007 she supported Take That at the O2 and MEN Arenas. She has since moved into the world of Musical Theatre. Her musical ‘Single' will be playing at the New Wolsey Theatre in the UK in 2021 and she is working on a new version of the much loved 'Menopause The Musical’, also set for launch in 2021.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Karen, that is a brilliantly articulate explanation for your song “Karen” and why you wrote it. Love it! It was really interesting and very personal and brave of you to put it out there!

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