What It’s Like to Encounter a ‘Karen’

When two strangers walking by stopped to accuse James “Jamie” Juanillo of defacing private property, the San Francisco man immediately took a defensive posture. He started recording the encounter, which eventually went viral, garnering more than 23 million views. “I came up recording not because I thought there was a potential for a viral video, but because I believed that I was going to need to prove my innocence, that they were going to accuse me of a crime,” says Juanillo, 50, a Filipino American. James “Jamie” Juanillo stands in front of the Black Lives Matter wall art that prompted a woman to question whether he was defacing private property at his San Francisco home. (Courtesy James Juanillo)His “crime” was chalking a Black Lives Matter message on the retaining wall in front of the Pacific Heights home he shares with his husband and some friends. In the video, the woman, identified as Lisa Alexander, along with her male partner, approach Juanillo and question whether he lives at the property. They say they know that he does not and suggest he is breaking the law. Juanillo is heard calmly refusing to answer any questions while challenging the woman’s apparent insinuation that a person who looks like him could not belong in the wealthy enclave. “What I experienced is this kind of polite, everyday, ubiquitous, accepted racism where it’s delivered gift wrapped and politely, stipulating your acceptance of their superiority and their supremacy,” Juanillo says. “The presumption is that they are entitled to whatever answers [to questions] that they feel like posing to a random person of color in whatever situation.” A white couple call the police on me, a person of color, for stencilling a James “Jamie” Juanillo stands in front of his San Francisco home. (Courtesy James Juanillo)Back in San Francisco, the police who responded to the call about Juanillo recognized him as a longtime resident and left without incident. Alexander and her partner released a public apology after the encounter went viral. Juanillo decided to release the video of his Karen moment to highlight what everyday racism can look like. “Racism just doesn’t mean being executed on the streets of America. Sometimes it just means being questioned for why you exist and where you exist,” Juanillo says. “Someone can call the cops — men with guns — on you for innocuous actions like designing chalk art on property that’s not theirs, that they have no vested interest in. They don’t feel threatened by you and yet, they’re still willing to bet your entire life.” The term and people who embody it will continue to exist, but people like Juanillo who might have previously felt helpless or vulnerable during such encounters, now have a powerful weapon of their own to deploy. “This is no longer a world where it’s ‘he said versus she said’ or ‘he said versus he said.’ It is now a world where technology is a great equalizer,” Juanillo says, “and we all have the ability and the technology to record the truth, and justice will be visually on our side.”