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  • Alisha Grech

What is Weaponized Whiteness?

Performing Victimhood: Weaponized Whiteness, Karen Outbursts and America

Spoken at IFTR Conference, New Scholars Forum, June 2022


SPOKEN INTRODUCTION, JUNE 2022: Hello. My name is Alisha Grech. I am a white woman with brown hair and brown eyes. I wear large, funky eyeglasses. I am also wearing a beige suit jacket, pants, and a white t-shirt.

Reykavik is the home of many peoples. People who had descended from those who have travelled from Norway, Denmark, Ireland, and many more. I am from Tkaronto, the place in the water where the trees are standing. These are the lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, the Wendat peoples and many others who have journeyed there.

CONTENT WARNING: This work contains mention of physical violence, verbal violence, racism, white supremacy, lynching and micro-aggressions. Specific videos will be displayed of public altercations that include shouting, animal cruelty and physical violence.

“The ‘hidden’ nature of whiteness is grounded in the dynamics of dominant group status. As a sociopolitically and numerically dominant group, whites in the United States have used their political and cultural hegemony to shape the racial order and racial understandings of American society... The mainstreaming or normalization of whiteness has in turn had important implications for white racial consciousness. Unlike members of subordinate groups, whites are less likely to feel socially and culturally “different” in their everyday experiences...” - White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, Rethinking Whiteness Studies, Woody Doane.

On May 25th, 2020, Christian Cooper, a Black, cis-male birdwatcher was walking through Central Park, in Manhattan. He, like so many others, newly wading into the pandemic, needed an escape that only the outdoors could provide him. As he walked through the park, he encountered a white woman with her dog, off of its leash. Christian asked the dog walker, later identified as Amy Cooper, to put her dog on a leash as the area was not safe for that kind of activity. As Christian asked her again, he took out his phone to begin recording the interaction. That was when Amy became aggressive. Holding her own dog by the throat, Amy shouted: “I’m going to tell [the police] that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She falsely threatened, angrily pointing at him. As she dialled 911, something interesting happened. Suddenly, Amy’s character changed from that of the aggressor to the damsel in distress. Amy Cooper held the phone to her ear and sobbed into the phone to the 911 operator: “I am being threatened by a man, please send the cops immediately.”

In an apology for this video, Amy Cooper was quoted as saying "I'm not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way,"

In America, a place, like many others, where Black bodies are seen as targets and criminals, often brutalized and killed by law enforcement, Amy Cooper knew exactly what she was doing. As a white woman, she weaponized her position of privilege over Christian, a Black man, to get what she wanted.

In her book, White Tears / Brown Scars, author Ruby Hamad writes that in America, “this weaponization of white womanhood continues to be the centrepiece of an arsenal used to maintain the status quo.” In this work, I will discuss the performance of victimhood, through a focus on the weaponization of white womanhood that Hamad centralizes.

In recent years, weaponized whiteness resurged as a viral meme known as “Karen.” In an article for NPR, Karen Grigsby Bates explains that: “Karen is shorthand for a woman who... is usually white. She's convinced her way is the right way, whether it’s about charcoal grilling in the park, policing non-white people's behavior or demanding to speak to a manager or higher authority who can get her what she wants.”

The Karen is not only knowledgeable about her place on the white-supremacist pyramid, but frequently weaponizes this position against those she interprets as a threat, despite also interpreting those people as beneath her. Although, this is not a new phenomenon. If anything, the Karen is a contemporary representation of her racist predecessors.

In the 1800s, Karen was better recognized as “Miss Ann”—a white woman who, with her white male counterpart, enslaved and abused Indigenous and people of colour. Even though in some ways, Miss Ann faced oppression herself as a woman, she frequently utilized and relished in her position over Black and Indigenous bodies. During this time, Black populations used this terminology to point out their oppressor’s harmful, deeply violent personhood.

While helpful in clarifying the harm and intention behind the often dubbed “erratic” behaviour of white women—it is worth noting the possible sexist implications of the word “Karen.”

It is a patronizing term that can be understood to be linked with a certain level of misogyny—especially if and when white men in privileged positions, utilize it to describe nagging wives, girlfriends or mothers. After all, to white men, Karen’s may be hysterical, or perhaps even humorous. The word “Karen” and what she stands for, is not dangerous to them and never could be. Thus, becoming appropriated in a way that makes a joke out of her appearance.

Although, it is important to remember that the word “Karen” truly belongs to the Black community. It originated there, along with the Miss Anns and the Beckys of the past. The resurgence of the Karen in a COVID-19 pandemic-affected world calls back to the harms of the white women of the past, who were both oppressed and oppressor.

On March 25, 1931, a fight broke out on a Southern Railroad freight train in which police arrested nine Black youths from 13 to 19 years of age. Prior to charging the youths with a minor crime, local deputies questioned two white women: Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. During their interview with authorities, Price and Bates accused the group of boys of rape. What followed this incident was the arrest, charge, and imprisonment of Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson and Eugene Williams—as well as the recantment of the statements that Bates and Price originally made. In 2013, more than 80 years after their arrests, the teenagers, otherwise known as the Scottsboro boys, were finally pardoned for the crimes they were falsely accused of committing.

On August 24th, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black child, walked into Bryant’s Grocery with his cousin Curtis. Inside, he crossed paths with 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant: a white woman and grocery store owner. According to Carolyn, Emmett Till made a sexual advance towards hers—grabbing her in the middle of her store. After hearing Carolyn’s claims, Roy Bryant and his brother murdered Emmett Till. In later years, it was revealed that Emmett Till never touched Carolyn Bryant. In 2017, in the book The Blood of Emmett Till, Carolyn Bryant confessed that her original statement was a lie.

In the summer of 2021, Ijeoma Ukenta arrived at Short Hills Mall in Millburn, New Jersey. She entered Victoria's Secret, picked out some products and went to the cash register. Upon purchasing her items, she noticed Abigail Elphick, a white woman, was standing too close for COVID-19 protocols. As Abigail Elphick became aggressive at the checkout counter, Ukenta took out her phone to record the encounter.

As Ukenta takes a step back, she stammers in disbelief: “No, excuse you—Do you see this?” Ukenta’s words, and the waving of Abigail’s arm, draws the attention of the store. Throughout Ukenta’s videos, Abigail shifts seamlessly between the roles of aggressor and victim. Her performance concludes in a show-stopping finale; she calls the police on Ijeoma Ukenta, claiming that there was a violent Black woman threatening her in the mall.

Much like Christian Cooper, Ukenta films to protect herself from not only Elphick, but from the possible threat of law enforcement. This as much is shown, as police officers arrive at Victoria’s Secret, they do little to assist Ukenta and instead, cater to Elphick.

In my initial viewing of these videos and many more like them, I was caught between laughter and horror. At first, it felt like I was watching a ridiculous melodrama. But as the videos continued, I became increasingly startled by the behaviours exhibited here. What began as unbelievable, watching an adult perform themselves that way, ended as no way entertaining.

This is the performance and weaponization of whiteness. A tool long used by white women, rooted in their desire to maintain control. Not only does this weaponization of whiteness reinforce supremacist structures, but it also endeavours to discredit the presence, the fears and the lived experiences of people of colour; through threatening police involvement and positioning people of colour as threats.

This work is an extension of my dissertation entitled: Fourth-wave Feminism: Repetitions of Whiteness and Violence in Our Time. In this research, I examine how contemporary mainstream feminism preserves, rather than subverts, white ideologies of the past through a perpetuation of violence. It is my hope that the research presented today calls into question the presence of whiteness within the gendered experience.

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