A Twitter video clip that has been retweeted over 85,000 times shows a woman cowering, whimpering and shrieking in terror while a man taunts and berates her, apparently for cutting him off in traffic and flipping him the bird. And the man, who filmed the video and put it online, is meant to be the good guy.
The maker of the video, Karlos Dillard — a self-described entertainer and public speaker who is black—claimed that the woman, whom he mockingly addressed as “Karen,” had also used a racial slur.
Dillard’s post was boosted by several black-focused websites, including Essence (“Seattle-Based Karen Breaks Into Theatrics Once The Man She Allegedly Calls The N-Word Starts Recording”) and The Grio (“Seattle Black man films hysterical ‘Karen’ who falsely claims she is being attacked”). But it stirred up some Twitter controversy even in quarters usually sympathetic to the anti-racism cause. People noticed odd details. One poster, a Black Lives Matter supporter, noted that Dillard seemed to be far more concerned about the woman cutting him off and flipping him off than about the supposed racial slur.
There were more red flags, such as several other videos in which Dillard accused white or Asian women of racist verbal abuse but the alleged abuse always happened off-camera. And, most damning, a video in which Dillard and his husband Kris openly discussed “laying traps for racism” by provoking confrontations and falsely accusing people of saying or doing something racist, on the assumption that those who don’t protest their innocence are essentially pleading no contest to racism because, deep down, they know they’ve been caught. (Or something like that.)
It’s hard to tell exactly what happened between Dillard and his latest “Karen,” whose real name is apparently Leah. Did she cut him off in traffic? Maybe. Did she flip him off? She repeatedly denies it in the video, and there’s no evidence to back it up. Did she, as he claims, follow him for several blocks? All the evidence suggests he followed her home. Did she use racist language? The only source for that claim is a statement by a man who is on record admitting that he uses false accusations of racism to “lay traps.” (As one blogger pointed out, it is also noteworthy that Dillard only mentioned the slur when rebuking people who tried to intervene on Leah’s behalf, not when confronting Leah herself.)
So, ultimately, there are two plausible scenarios. One: the entire thing was a self-promoting setup. (It’s worth noting that as soon as the video went viral, Dillard tried to literally cash in on it by selling T-shirts.) Two: the woman was a bad and rude driver, but Dillard blew up a routine and non-racial traffic spat into a racial incident. Either way, this does not look good for him.
While Dillard still had his supporters, the tide quickly turned against him even on black and social justice Twitter — partly because of political eccentricities that made him suspect in those circles. It’s unclear what Dillard’s politics are today, but three years ago he was a self-identified “black gay conservative”; there is a 2017 podcast interview in which he talks about voting for Donald Trump and says that Philando Castile, the African-American gun owner fatally shot by the police in Minneapolis, died because of his own mistakes.
There was also the sheer vileness of Dillard’s behavior: his gleeful humiliation of Leah in the video, his bald-faced lie to her that he would not put the video online, his absolute lack of sympathy for her distress, and his rush to monetize his supposed victimhood.
Presumably because of all this, Dillard’s attempted “karening” of Leah never picked up full steam in the mainstream media and her full identity has never been publicized. (Not for lack of trying by Dillard, who calls attention to her license plate and her home address in the video.)
This repugnant incident highlights a few important things. First, that caught-on-camera episodes of alleged racism can be used for purposes of grift. Second, that the prospect of becoming the “star” of a viral racist video is genuinely terrifying. Leah’s hysterical reaction may have been over the top, but there is no doubt she could see herself becoming the next Amy Cooper, newly jobless and socially ruined.
This is far from the first viral racism video to push a false or dubious narrative. Others include:
The “MAGA hat kids” vs. the Native American elder
In this notorious 2019 saga, a group of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who were in Washington, DC for the Right to Life March, found themselves at the center of a national media storm because of a viral video that supposedly showed them harassing and jeering a Native American activist on the National Mall. After the teens and the school were deluged with death threats, new footage emerged showing that in fact, the boys were the ones being harassed by a group of black street preachers from a racist and homophobic cult and that the Native American activist had waded into the confrontation. (In a further twist, most of the boys were not mocking him but cheering him on thinking he was on their side.)
The “napping while black” scandal at Yale
I have previously written about the real story behind this widely reported incident from May 2018, in which a white graduate student, Sarah Braasch, was said to have called the police on a black classmate for sleeping in a common lounge in their dorm. The black student, Lolade Siyonbola, live-streamed part of her encounter with Braasch and her conversation with the police on Facebook.
In fact, Braasch’s call to campus police stemmed from her belief that the lounge next to her isolated dorm room was being used to harass her — as she had repeatedly complained to housing staff in the preceding weeks — and that Siyonbola was one of the harassers. This fiasco also had a long prehistory of conflicts related to Braasch’s fears for her personal safety, some due to valid concerns and some to mental health issues. (The previous year, she had made almost certainly unfounded allegations of stalking by a white maintenance worker she had seen near her room.)
Braasch has made many over-the-top, evidence-free claims about being the victim of a deliberate setup abetted by the Yale administration. But the fact remains that her life was upended by a mobbing that smeared her as a rabid bigot based on an out-of-context video and that the media amplified the smear.
The Chipotle “racist” who was vindicated
A video that showed a group of young black men being refused service at a St. Paul, Minnesota Chipotle unless they paid upfront — even as a white customer was served with no advance payment — sparked outrage in November 2018. The manager who talked to the men, Dominique Moran, was vilified as a “racist bitch” and lost her job.
Then, an internet sleuth who sensed there was more to the story — Moran mentioned prior encounters with the men, and her nonwhite coworkers also seemed suspicious of them — decided to do some digging. He quickly found social media posts in which the “victims” openly bragged about their exploits as dine-and-dash thieves at Chipotle and other restaurants. After this information surfaced, opinion shifted in Moran’s favor, and there was even a petition for her to get her job back. (Chipotle did offer to rehire her, but she declined.)
The mobbing of “Crosswalk Cathy”
“White Woman Calls Cops on Black Man’s Parking Job,” blared a headline on the Portland Mercury website on October 30, 2018. The source of the story was a 30-second Facebook video posted the day before by a black woman, Mattie Khan, which showed a white woman calling to report Khan’s and her husband’s vehicle for partly blocking a crosswalk. Khan provided the narration: “So, this is another white person calling the police on a black person, ’cause she says we’re illegally parked right here.”
Khan’s husband Rashsaan Muhammad asserted that the car had been there for only five minutes (he and Khan had been across the street picking up takeout food). The woman, mockingly dubbed “Crosswalk Cathy” on Twitter, countered that she had been there for ten minutes and the car had been there the entire time.
After the Portland Mercury picked up the story, other media followed suit, with headlines such as “#CrosswalkCathy Calls Police on Black Man Because She Didn’t Like The Way He Parked” (from The Root, a black-oriented news and culture site). Most news organizations, at least, respected the woman’s request to remain anonymous; but inevitably, social justice Twitter had no such scruples.
An activist known as Simar reposted the original clip with the exhortation, “Twitter, do your thing & identify this woman.” Hawaii-based Micronesian-American activist Sha Ongelungel tweeted information identifying the woman, a data management specialist at a Portland school, and encouraged people to contact the school. One young Twitter user proudly posted a screenshot of her letter urging administrators to “remove this woman from your staff” and suggesting that “Crosswalk Cathy” was intentionally inciting violence against the African-American couple: “[C]onsidering the high rate of Police Brutality (sic) in this country, it’s not hard to guess what result she was aiming for.”
In reality, as the Portland Mercury eventually admitted in an update, “Crosswalk Cathy” was not even calling the police but the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s parking enforcement hotline. And, of course, she had no idea whether the owners of the car she was reporting were black, white, or some other racial group.
It’s unknown whether “Cathy” lost her job, but she is not currently listed on her employer’s website, as she reportedly was prior to the incident. She has kept an extremely low profile since and has apparently scrubbed her entire online presence.
The infamy of “Barbecue Becky”
This was probably the most notorious “Living While Black” incident. In April 2018, a middle-aged white woman — who became the archetypal Karen before “Karen” was a thing — approached a group of black people barbecuing in a park by Lake Merritt in Oakland, California and told them it was illegal to use a charcoal grill in that area. While calling the police, she was confronted by a white female activist, Michelle Snider, who posted a 25-minute video of their interaction to YouTube. Snider, who is married to one of the men at the cookout, insisted that the use of the grill was entirely legal and suggested that “Becky” (real name, Jennifer Schulte) simply had a problem with black people being in the park. Schulte flatly denied that it was about race.
The video went viral, and “Becky” quickly became the Bigot of the Week; she was even featured in a series of memes photoshopping her into famous black history moments.
There’s only one problem: technically, “Becky” was correct. There really is a law that prohibits using charcoal grills in that area, and the Oakland Police Department has occasionally threatened to issue citations for illegal grilling because of complaints about charcoal being dumped in the bushes and in the lake. This rather salient detail was missing from virtually every media account of the incident.
Now, that doesn’t mean “Becky” wasn’t an obnoxious busybody badgering innocent picnickers about a hardly-ever-enforced law. But there’s also no evidence that her obnoxiousness was racially motivated. (Snider’s husband Kenzie Smith and his friend Onsayo Abram both told the media that Schulte called them the n-word before Snider arrived and started filming; but, oddly, no one confronts Schulte about it on-camera when she denies being racist.)
Ironically, her motive may have been progressive: excess of environmental zeal. According to reports, Schulte, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford, is an air quality and climate change specialist who has worked on numerous environmental projects. As such, she may have considered illegal coal-burning a big deal. One could even argue that she was a white female counterpart of Christian Cooper, the African-American bird-lover who hassles Central Park visitors about following the rules on dog-leashing.
If one doesn’t assume that “Barbecue Becky” is a malignant racist, Snider’s video should be uncomfortable to watch: an increasingly distraught Schulte, who comes across as eccentric and socially awkward (the police dispatcher suggested at one point that she was mentally unwell), is relentlessly badgered and accused of racism by Snider while waiting for the police to arrive. When she tries to walk away and take refuge in a nearby store, Snider follows her and informs the clerk that Schulte was harassing black men.
While “Becky’s” detractors have made fun of her for crying when the police show up — presumably weaponizing “white women’s tears” — it’s quite obvious from the video that she is extremely anxious and near tears when Snider follows her to the store. In that sense, the “Barbecue Becky” video is a direct precursor to Karlos Dillard’s “Karen” video with its callous taunts toward a person in obvious distress.
Obviously, none of this is to deny that racism exists. Some videos of racist or bigoted behavior — e.g., the clip of the New York lawyer who berated Spanish-speaking restaurant employees and threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on them — can be a useful alarm bell. They can help the majority population viscerally understand the slights that members of various minorities still have to endure.
But viral racist outrage videos have an ugly side, too. They can be used to target people who are mentally ill and hold them up for public ridicule and cruel entertainment— a modern version, one might say, of the freak shows of times past. They can be used for grift and revenge. They can promote racial polarization more than understanding, encouraging the assumption that every interracial conflict is about race. And they can causes serious harm to their targets.
In this sense, the Karlos Dillard incident points to a real problem. Yet unlike the Amy Cooper/Christian Cooper Central Park video, it has received no mainstream media attention despite setting off a big social media controversy. Cooper vs. Cooper was about a white woman weaponizing race to punish a black man for crossing her in an everyday social conflict. Karlos vs. “Karen” was the reverse.
The press is understandably leery of feeding the “white victimhood” narratives that the far right loves to exploit. But in a climate of racial hyperawareness, people (and not just white people: Moran, for instance, is Mexican-American) really can be victimized by public shaming based on a misleading video clip.
Perhaps the solution is for everyone — but especially professional journalists — to exercise responsibility before amplifying such content. Two questions should be essential: “Is this an accurate presentation of the facts?” and “Is this newsworthy?”