It began with a Covid-era brawl over social distancing at a New Jersey mall known for its high-end stores.
Ijeoma Ukenta had gone there to use a coupon to get a free pair of Victoria’s Secret underwear. Another shopper, Abigail Elphick, got too close, Ukenta said, prompting her to ask the woman to move six feet away from her.
Ms. Elphick complained to a cashier. Ms. Ukenta began recording the incident on her phone. The drama escalated quickly from there.
Ms. Elphick, who is white, lunged at Ms. Ukenta, who is black, and then fell to the ground crying, sobbing and begging to stop recording her “mental breakdown.”
Mrs. Ukenta summoned security agents; Mrs. Elphick called the police. The recording continued for 15 minutes.
To viewers of what quickly became a viral video, Elphick became known as the “Karen of Victoria’s Secret,” a villain in a now-familiar genre of online food.
But people who watched the episode online or in-store were unaware that Elphick was disabled, with a long history of medical and psychological conditions, according to legal documents that shed new light on the encounter.
These shameful videos have emerged in recent years as powerful tools to expose the casual and routine racism that Black people face in their daily lives. But two years after the Victoria’s Secret incident, court documents, filed in recent weeks, show how they can also distort complicated interactions, reducing them to two-dimensional narratives.
Ms. Elphick, 27, lives in a complex reserved for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her behavior was not due to a “racial” issue, according to a complaint filed by her attorneys, but rather out of fear that being filmed would cause her to lose her apartment and her job.
Ukenta, in her lawsuit, also described being motivated by fear: “well aware that if the police were called, they might not believe her, a black woman.”
At the time of the July 2021 meeting, Ms. Ukenta had an established online presence and a YouTube channel, where she offered vignettes about gardening, food, foreign travel and cultural events in Newark, where she lives.
She posted the Victoria’s Secret video in several installments on various social media sites, and the brief encounter at the Short Hills shopping center in Millburn, one of New Jersey’s wealthiest communities, quickly sparked Internet fury.
Ms. Ukenta’s first video, “Karen Goes Crazy Part 1,” was viewed 2.6 million times on YouTube. An unrelated YouTube channel, Public Freakouts Unleashed, ranked it #1 in a compilation of the “25 Most Notorious Karen Videos of ALL TIME.”
A GoFundMe campaign that Ms. Ukenta created, “Help me defend myself against Karen,” generated donations of more than $104,000.
The incident was presented as an extreme example of the “Karen” meme: an encounter between a black person and a white woman in which the white woman calls the authorities, potentially endangering the black person as a result.
“This is how they’re going to kill us, you see?” Ms. Ukenta says in the video.
But the crash and its consequences were even more complicated than they seemed.
In July, Ukenta filed a lawsuit against Elphick, Victoria’s Secret, the mall and its security company, which she claims were grossly negligent, slow to respond and treated her as an antagonist rather than a victim of a co-worker’s attempted assault. Shopping. . In the video, Ms. Ukenta can be heard asking why it takes so long for security officers, who do not appear until a store employee comes to pick them up, to arrive.
“They were extremely dismissive of her,” Ms. Ukenta’s complaint states, “and were indifferent and unconcerned about her concerns for her safety.”
When police arrived, Elphick told an officer that his panic was due to fear that the video would be released and cause him to lose his job and his apartment, according to a police report.
As images of Elphick bounced around the world, one online commenter urged other viewers to contact a school district where Elphick had interned to demand that their “racist employee” be fired. She began receiving harassing calls and as recently as April, she contacted police to report that a man referring to the Victoria’s Secret video had called her and threatened to rape and kill her, court records show.
“I was horrified,” said Tom Toronto, president of the United Way of Bergen County, which manages the housing complex where Ms. Elphick lives, of the fallout from the video and what he called a “total loss of perspective and proportion.”
“She has a disorder. “She has anxiety,” she said. “She had a breakdown. “Then the world we live in took over and became something completely different than what it really was.”
Elphick, through his attorney, declined to comment.
None of the videos on Ms. Ukenta’s YouTube channel have had more viewers than those focused on Ms. Elphick’s behavior, and her YouTube channel now has more than 26,000 subscribers.
Ms. Elphick’s countersuit argues that her right to privacy was violated after Ms. Ukenta shared personal information about her. But the legal filing also highlights newer, unrelated videos Ms. Ukenta has posted since the Short Hills shopping center incident criticizing a landlord and several retail stores; The documents point to those videos as evidence that she has engaged in a broader pattern of “harassment.”
“Ukenta has preyed on people behind a keyboard,” the complaint states, “inciting hate while preying on victims and the general public for his own financial gain.”
It’s an accusation that Ukenta’s attorney, Tracey C. Hinson, strongly rejects and that she says only underscores the wisdom of the impulse that led Ukenta to refuse to stop recording in the first place.
“I knew that in Millburn, New Jersey, no one would believe her,” Hinson said. “And that is exactly what has happened.”
Ms. Ukenta has also continued to post non-conflict videos, including positive dining and shopping experiences.
Lawyers for the lingerie store and the security company did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney for the mall declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.
It is unclear how Ms. Ukenta used the money she raised through GoFundMe. When contacted by phone, she said she could not discuss the matter immediately.
But Ukenta has said online that he believed it was fair that he benefited financially from widely viewed video content on social media. “Why wouldn’t I want to make money from MY videos if everyone else is?” she wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, two months after the incident.
Hinson said he could not quantify how much revenue, if any, Ukenta made from the online activity, and emphasized that his client’s social media presence was irrelevant to the recorded interaction at Victoria’s Secret.
“He has a right,” Hinson said. “She has the right to tell the public what happened to her.”
“This is nothing more than a ploy designed to belittle,” he added.
Videos of white women rushing to cry or call authorities, usually over people of color, became common during the pandemic and increased in frequency as protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, raged. spread throughout the country. In 2018, a San Francisco woman who called authorities on a Black girl selling bottled water and a New York woman with an unleashed dog who called 911 after a tense 2020 encounter with a Black birdwatcher in Central Park became notable early examples.
Apryl Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who has study videos depicting white women as entitled aggressors, said so-called Karen memes can play a valuable role in the fight for racial equity.
The fact that they have appeared less frequently in the last year, he said, is an indication that they can be effective tools in exposing racism.
“People have learned that there are social ramifications for being recognized as a Karen,” she said, referring to possible loss of employment and social standing.
Professor Williams said she was not familiar with Ms Ukenta’s YouTube channel or her other videos. But her volume does not invalidate the behavior depicted, she said.
“Sure, maybe it will make you money,” Professor Williams said. “But maybe you’re saying, ‘This is Karen’s behavior and I’m documenting it for everyone to see.’ “
It’s no surprise that Victoria’s Secret’s Karen remains a cultural touchstone even two years after the incident, according to academics who study the anthropology of media.
Online posts that highlight intense emotions like anger, outrage or disgust tend to spread “further and faster,” said James P. Walsh, chair of the graduate criminology department at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. .
Once content is liked or shared widely, an aura of credibility is attached to the content, an assertion that, in turn, expands its reach.
“It just snowballs,” Professor Walsh said, “and gets out of control.”