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Tears for Unfounded Fears: Why ‘Victoria’s Secret Karen’ Isn’t Funny

Tears for Unfounded Fears: Why ‘Victoria’s Secret Karen’ Isn’t Funny
Tears for Unfounded Fears: Why ‘Victoria’s Secret Karen’ Isn’t Funny

On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure are together at last –– IRL, that is, for the first time in about a year and a half –– coming to you from Podstream Studios in Times Square.

  • The latest viral video in the infamous “Karen” genre dropped this week. At a Victoria’s Secret store in New Jersey, a Black customer asked a white customer to stand six feet away. She charged at her instead, and staged a theatrical meltdown when she realized she was being recorded.

  • Performative white-woman victimhood is nothing new, but it’s always dangerous. Why does it persist, and how can we fight it?

  • Should we cancel “Karen” as a term? Is it played out, too cutesy to be appropriate for such a serious issue, or both?

“So, white people are crazy,” says Toure.

If you’ve ever listened to democracy-ish, that’s no surprise. But this week, a new viral video made the rounds on social media that crystallized the particularly crazy paradox of white privilege and white victimhood.

At a Victoria’s Secret store at Short Hills Mall in New Jersey, Abigail Elphick, 25, is seen physically charging toward Ijeoma Ukenta, who is in the midst of recording the (ongoing) incident on her phone. NJ.com reported that Ukenta, 38, had just asked Elphick to move six feet away from her. It appears that Elphrick was trying to hit Ukenta or grab her phone out of her hand.

When Ukenta rears back, Elphick goes into what can only be described as a full-on meltdown.

“This grown Black woman basically asked, Can you move back a little bit?” Toure explains. “And the white woman freaks out.”

Toure’s 12-year-old kid’s reaction? “She's giving me five-year-old vibes.”

Ukenta posted the videos of the incident on TikTok, where her account was later suspended. But not before the clips were shared widely on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

The Millburn Police Department is apparently investigating the conduct of the officers who responded to the dispute. (They declined to remove Elphick from the mall, and Ukenta says they were dismissive of her when she filed a formal complaint against the officers.)

“There's so much to unpack here,” says Toure. “The weaponization of white women's tears is so prevalent, and so dangerous.”

Let the unpacking begin.

Episode Highlights –– White Women Weaponize Tears

Video doesn’t protect us, but it’s essential for justice

One of the things that immediately struck Toure about this video is “the nature of filming to protect yourself –– this Black woman's immediate instinct to record, because the white authorities will arrive and they will not believe her,” he says.

“It’s the world we know we live in. We have to protect ourselves with video. Otherwise, we are vulnerable.”

That’s true, but so is the fact that video “doesn't actually protect us,” Danielle says. “Rodney King's beat-down by multiple police officers was one of the first incidents of police brutality we saw on video. It didn't stop them from letting those cops go. It didn't stop the LA riots from happening.”

And it didn’t stop Derek Chauvin from murdering George Floyd 25 years later.

However, “we wouldn’t have justice if not for the video,” says Toure.

Without the courage of Darnella Frazier and others who documented Chauvin’s crime, we’d never even know about it. The initial police report referred to Floyd’s death as a “medical incident.”

‘Performance art’ or panic attack?

Likewise, if Ijeoma Ukenta wasn’t recording the video, and all we heard was audio on a 911 call –– “I'm being attacked. Oh my god. Oh my god.” –– what would the dispatcher think?

“White woman in danger!” says Toure.

“And the cops would come, guns blazing, into that Victoria's Secret, throwing that woman up against the wall. You can just imagine it. You can see it happening because we've seen it happen over and over and over again.”

Danielle noticed details like the way Elphrick “lays her bag down, so she can pretend to faint, and then says ‘You're attacking me. But it literally looks like she’s at least five or six feet away from the woman who’s filming her.”

“I didn't know if it was performance art. I didn't know what the fuck it was,” she adds. “But I was so disturbed. Because I think she really thinks that something was happening to her.”

Twitter users speculated that Elphrick may have been having a mental health episode, and the police incident report called it a “panic attack.”

But Toure thinks Elphrick realizes that simply being filmed is dangerous for her.

“In 2021 we understand when someone starts filming you, you are potentially in trouble. This could go viral.”

And she’s probably already worried about the effect of the video on her job and her livelihood, he adds.

“But instead of stopping, being mature, straightening up and chilling out, she goes more and more and more into madness,” says Toure.

This viral meltdown is no laughing matter

Danielle’s initial reaction to the video was that she “wanted to laugh at it,” she recalls.

“But then I thought about how dangerous white women's tears are. If you look at our history, lynchings began because of white women screaming foul.”

It’s a painful reminder of how a white woman’s baseless claims led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till: A Black boy looked at me, winked at me, smiled at me, assaulted me.

Those kinds of casual but cruel accusations have led to the deaths of so many people, says Danielle. “They’ve led to homes and towns being burnt down.”

That’s why we can't view Abigail Elphick’s tantrum as an isolated incident. We have to ask why women like her manipulate others with bogus claims of aggression by Black folks.

“How do white women like her, and like Amy Cooper, know to perform in such a way? Because it is a performance,” Danielle adds.

TikTok’s cry-baby boom

A few weeks ago, TikTok blew up with a meme of white women crying –– “and the joke was for them to perform tears authentically, making us feel like they’re really upset,” Toure explains. “Then, after six or seven seconds, they’d stop on a dime and smile.”

The fake-crying act was ostensibly meant to demonstrate how easily women can manipulate their partners, but it accidentally became evidence of why Karenesque theatrics are phony AF.

It still leaves Toure with the question: Is this behavior innate –– or “is Karen-ing taught?” he asks.

The phenomenon isn’t new: He remembers “having serious discussions about racism as a teenager in high school, and a white girl would get upset because she felt like she was being called racist, even though we weren’t. We were just talking about the nature of racism in America.”

Inevitably, she’d start crying, and the whole mood of the room shifted to placate her, rather than point out that she wasn’t a victim.

“When they start crying, they become the victim and they know it,” Toure adds.

“They know it, and white men protect them because of it,” says Danielle.

The politics of playing the victim

White women have often used their station to play damsel in distress with little regard to how dangerous it can be for whomever they’re accusing. Police (and many others) simply assume something tragic must have happened, and that (usually Black) person must be responsible.

“We never pause and ask why society circles the wagons around white women and elevates them to this place where they know they have the power –– in the middle of a store, or anywhere –– to feign fainting and scream that they are the victim” –– and, in this case, despite the fact that the “victim” is clearly responsible for the commotion.

Toure thinks white women understand that “their weakness, their emotional crumbling, will get the world to their side” if they feel at all threatened, but “Black women are taught they must be strong and stoic.”

The public act of breaking down in sobs is “not what a Black woman does,” he adds. “That's not what big mama does. That's not what the women in our community do. We don't think to start crying as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

‘Nobody’s coming to save us’

But white women don't even have to be in danger or truly threatened to turn on the waterworks, says Danielle.

Meanwhile, when we see Black women crying in public or on television, “it's because someone has murdered their child, their husband, their sister,” she adds. “When we see Black women crying, it is the pain and trauma of generations.”

And many Black women will respond with anger instead, Toure says.

“I don't want to say they're being angry Black women. But they understand that this is a feeling that manifests power … rather than crumbling and crying,” he explains. “Because crying says, Somebody come help me. Somebody save me. I'm a damsel in distress. Whereas a Black woman is going to say, I am going to solve this situation.”

“Because we know nobody's coming to save us,” says Danielle.

The ‘arbitrary’ terms of being silenced

Elphrick was not arrested, Toure notes, even though she made “a massive stink in the store.” Security guards did not intervene either.

But “we've seen Black people thrown out of stores for making far less of a fuss,” he says.

Danielle points out that neither security or store associates asked the Ukenta whether she was okay. It’s stunning how they ignored her distress.

“Also, when she protested by taking her videos to TikTok, where she had two accounts, her accounts were banned,” says Toure. “I don't understand [TikTok’s] logic.”

Danielle doesn’t, either.

“I honestly believe that these social media platforms’ rules are arbitrary,” she says. “They just don't want the attention, or they don't like the person who has the accounts.”

But they're comfortable with other people sharing the video, just not the original, Toure points out. Ukenta, however, was “literally silenced.”

‘Free papers,’ digital edition

We see this all the time, Danielle says ––“every time a Black woman is standing in their power, because she has the power to film an attack that’s happening on her, to use it as evidence later if [the assailant] runs to the nearest police officer.”

Toure feels like “she wasn't standing in power. She was trying to stand in truth –– let me get receipts for this.”

Our constant need for receipts means “we're recording moments rather than living in them.”

Ukenta was just there to get a free pair of panties, but instead she had to be on her phone, documenting the scene “so a future person will see she was right,” he adds. “It’s great that she and Christian Cooper and other people are able to record the moment and save themselves.”

But instead of living our lives, “we are collecting receipts to make sure we will be okay when somebody else comes up and says basically, ‘Let me see your free papers. Let me make sure you don't belong in jail right now.”

Victoria’s statement

It wouldn’t be a viral video from a mall without a tone-deaf corporate response.

Victoria's Secret released a statement on Twitter that read:

Associate and customer safety is our top priority and we are committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment for all. The video taken in our store is unsettling and we have initiated a full investigation. Our associates followed our protocols and immediately called our Emergency Operations Center as well as mall security for support during the altercation between our customers.

We are dedicated to continuing this critical conversation and demonstrating our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion through our actions and our words.

“I don't know who is doing people's PR,” says Danielle. “I think that the statement was weak as fuck … it starts off talking about their commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment. Okay, well, they failed. I don't know who they were creating a safe environment for.

And she balks at their investigation.

“Just rewind the tape.”

Toure sees “nothing in the statement, or in this moment, that addresses diversity, inclusion, or any of that. It was not an altercation. These sorts of words, this sort of framing, is super important.”

Danielle agrees and adds: “This is the same way in which we were referring to the Tulsa massacre as the Tulsa ‘riots.’ It's not a riot when Black people were caught off guard and burned alive in their own fucking homes. A riot would indicate there are two sides in combat. An altercation indicates there are two sides as well, but this is a person attempting to assault, verbally or otherwise, another person.”

Should we cancel the concept of ‘Karen’?

While Toure generally enjoys laughing at “Karens,” he’s starting to think we need another way to frame them.

“As soon as we slap the name Karen on somebody, we've sort of put them in a box –– we're looking down on them. But there is a cuteness to calling someone a Karen … but this is a fairly evil weaponization of racism.”

For people who want to argue white supremacy is dead, it’s harmful to suggest a tantrum in a lingerie store depicts white supremacy in action.

“She's not a white supremacist,” says Toure. “She's not wearing a Klan hood. But she pulled out her race card and threw it on the floor and was like, I am white. I demand serviceEverybody do my beckoning ... Protect me now.”

But that is “extraordinarily dangerous for the bodies of Black people,” so he wonders if there’s “something stronger we can use to define these situations, that doesn't allow them some bit of feminine cuteness.”

If we saw a Klansman marching down the street, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, there's a Billy. There's a Ken,” he adds.

The name Karen has “become bastardized and used in all sorts of situations,” Toure notes.

“It’s getting played out. And it's too nice for these women who are committing evil acts.”

Why weaponizing tears is never an ‘isolated incident’

Danielle agrees that we’re going to need a better way to call out white privilege. Because in order to grasp how whiteness and white tears are weaponized, “you have to understand and know history in order to even make that statement.”

It connects directly to the “whole bullshit conversation we’re seeing right now about critical race theory,” she adds. “This is exactly what they [the conservative powers that be] don't want you to know. Because then you can see everything as an isolated incident, as opposed to a pattern.”

But if people do understand the history here –– the “part white women have played, from being in the house with the master to the Victoria's Secret in New Jersey” –– you have to accept the larger systems of inequality we live with.

“The white woman is supposed to be virtuous, right?” Toure asks. “She's supposed to be sweet and nice, but she can be just as evil and duplicitous and racist as anyone else. It's not just men who were slave owners, lynchers and segregationists. White women were right there with them doing it too.”

The Karen-induced exhaustion is real

We’d like to think we won’t have to keep having these “debates” –– that racism will somehow die with the Boomer generation.

But Abigail Elphrick wasn't 60-something. She’s Gen Z.

Toure is curious: “Where do they learn it from? Is there some moment that happens that tells them, When you cry, the world stops?

Danielle says it’s simpler than that.

“They learn by watching and doing.”

She finds the constant parade of Karens, and the conversations around them, increasingly exhausting.

Toure does, too, especially because “it can happen to any of us at any time.”

That’s apparently what Ukenta felt as well. “She just keeps saying, I can't believe this is happening to me,” he adds.

And every single time an unarmed Black person is killed, says Danielle, “We're just like, Shit. Is my number next? Everything seems like it's just coming a little too close.”

On that note, we'll be back next week –– “in our brand-new, sparkling clean studio,” says Toure.

“I’m coming with security,” says Danielle.

Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ish as Danielle Moodie and Toure discuss the current state of the political climate and our country from a Black perspective.