Victoria’s Secret ‘Karen’: Another example of white privilege

OPINION: The viral video of Abigail Elphick is yet another example of white people always weaponizing their privilege and power to keep Black folks and others in their metaphorical place

victoria's secret; victoria's secret store, victoria's secret karen
Abigail Elphick yells at Victoria's Secret customer Ijeoma Ukenta after attacking her while caught on camera. (Photo: YouTube/Mama Africa Muslimah)

By now, you’ve likely seen the latest video(s) of a crazed “Karen” at a Victoria’s Secret store located at a mall in New Jersey. The white woman, who has been identified as Abigail Elphick, was caught on camera trying to physically assault a Black, Muslim, Nigerian woman named Ijeoma Ukenta and then proceeded to throw one of the most embarrassing public tantrums I (and likely you) have ever witnessed.

If not, let me regale you with a re-cap. The scene happened at the Victoria’s Secret store in the Short Hills Mall in Millburn. The six-video sequence opens up with Abigail raising her hand and charging at Ukenta, who is already filming her. Ukenta backs up a bit and, stuttering over her words a little (likely in disbelief), tells the woman, “No,” “excuse you,” “uh uh,” and then repeats a series of “oh my God” and “Do you see this?” utterly astounded by what had transpired.

Meanwhile, the white woman — who just a moment prior was the full-on aggressor — then backs away, throws the item that was in her hand toward the store clerks and presumably onto the counter, and then falls (literally) into a fit of hysterics, holding her head, curling into a ball on the ground, crying.

Cue the world’s tiniest violin.

I have to admit that initially, upon watching the series of videos, I giggled a bit as did Ijeoma at times in the video. It’s simply unbelievable (and somewhat entertaining) to witness an adult act in a way one might expect from a 2-year-old. However, the more I watched and the more I thought about what in fact I had just seen, my amusement turned to outrage. The transition from aggressor to victim was literally seamless. So well done, in fact, one could have thought the whole thing was rehearsed.

But the gag is, while this wasn’t a performance piece, it’s an act that has been practiced time and again throughout the course of American history. The story is as old as time. Rather than monitor and police their own actions and behaviors, white people have always weaponized their privilege and power to keep Black folks and others in their metaphorical places. Remember Amy Cooper, aka “Central Park Karen“? Or the one who called the police on a Black child selling water?

Amy Cooper
Amy Cooper (left), the woman at the center of May’s controversial Central Park birdwatching case, allegedly made a second call to 911 in which she claimed she was assaulted by Chris Cooper (right).

In another video, Abigail is seen literally lying on the floor, shaking or convulsing, seemingly on purpose. While I’m no medical professional, and while she is now trying to blame the whole episode on her mental health, it’s pretty clear both throughout the series of videos and in terms of the outcome (the police allowed her to leave and drive herself home), that there was neither a medical nor a mental health emergency happening here.

Abigail yells hysterically that Ijeoma is filming her and asks security at the Victoria’s Secret store to take away the phone. Ijeoma, in response, indicates that she’s filming in order to protect herself (rightfully so, especially as Abigail later lies to the police about what all happened). Abigail then picks herself up off the floor and again charges at Ijeoma. Twice throughout this encounter, we see a white woman charge at and attack a Black woman, all while hollering and shouting about the Black woman recording her and supposedly harming her. Still, despite all of this, ultimately, it’s Abigail — not Ijeoma, nor Short Hills mall security — that finally calls the police.

This is exactly the premise on which white privilege works: the person acting a complete fool and being aggressive is the one seeking comfort, understanding, and security or police intervention. And, not to anyone’s shock or surprise, she is. What’s more, it’s disbelieving that the Victoria’s Secret store staff allowed someone to carry on as she did in their store, all while continuing to service other patrons as if nothing is even happening. There is simply no reason why anyone — be they Ijeoma, store employees, or other shoppers — should have been subjected to that kind of tantrum for that long.

There are also several bystanders who, at various times during the recording, all try to comfort Abigail, while also chiding Ijeoma for recording the interaction. But as Ijeoma verbalizes several times throughout the series of videos, she’s recording not just for documentary evidence but also for her own safety. This line of thinking is critical because, without video documentation, this situation would literally be she said vs. she said, and too often, we’ve seen how that exact dynamic never plays in favor of folks of color. White people are always believed. Black people are not. 

Furthermore, many people have pointed out in the comments online that at any time during the interaction, Abigail was free to get up, walk out of the purview of the camera, or leave the Victoria’s Secret store or the mall, and cut off all communication whatsoever with Ijeoma, and yet she did not. In fact, not only did she not walk away, she, at different times, physically approached and tried to attack Ijeoma, all while claiming that she was, in fact, the one being harmed.

victoria's secret; victoria's secret store, victoria's secret karen

The “caucacity” of it all is really quite something. Still, despite all of this, Abigail was never asked to leave the Victoria’s Secret store nor the mall, and as of now, no charges have been filed against her. And while we may be disappointed, none of us are actually shocked, are we? We don’t even need to speculate; we all know how this story would have ended if the roles had been reversed. When Ijeoma stated this to Millburn police, one of the responding officers said that he was “sorry she felt that way,” but this isn’t a feeling; it’s a fact as borne out by this very instance.

I grew up near Short Hills mall, and it was always my least favorite mall to go to in the area (luckily, we had a plethora to choose from). The pretension in the air of that place is palpable so when I found out that this is where the incident took place, I wasn’t at all surprised by the lackluster response by mall security and by the Millburn Police Department. They are ill-equipped at best in terms of taking seriously the complaint of a Black woman about or against a white woman.

Ijeoma has now set up a GoFundMe to get legal assistance in correcting this injustice, and I hope that she achieves whatever she feels is “just” in this case. At a minimum, I feel that Abigail, Victoria’s Secret, The Short Hills Mall and its security, as well as the Millburn Police Department all, owe Ijeoma an apology. And while I haven’t as of late anyway, I will not be shopping at the Short Hills Mall nor at any Victoria’s Secret until they do.

Thameka Thompson,

Thameka has a B.A in African American Studies from Yale University. Based in the New York/New Jersey area, she is a freelance writer, and owns a spiritual practice.

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