It began with a Covid-era tussle over social distancing at a New Jersey shopping mall known for its high-end stores.
Ijeoma Ukenta had gone there to use a coupon for a free pair of Victoria’s Secret underwear. Another shopper, Abigail Elphick, got too close, Ms. Ukenta said, leading her to ask the woman to move six feet away.
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 floor in tears, sobbing and begging that she stop recording her “mental breakdown.”
Ms. Ukenta summoned security officers; Ms. Elphick called the police. For 15 minutes, the recording continued.
To viewers of what quickly turned into a viral video, Ms. Elphick became known as the “Victoria’s Secret Karen,” a villain in a now-familiar genre of online fare.
But people watching online or at the store as the episode played out did not know that Ms. Elphick was disabled, with a long history of medical and psychological conditions, according to legal filings that shed new light on the encounter.
Such shaming videos have emerged in recent years as potent tools for exposing the casual and routine racism that Black people face in their daily lives. But two years after the Victoria’s Secret incident, the court documents, filed in recent weeks, show how they can also distort complicated interactions, reducing them to two-dimensional accounts.
Ms. Elphick, 27, lives in a complex reserved for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her behavior stemmed not from a “race-based” problem, according to a complaint filed by her lawyers, but from fear that being filmed would lead to the loss of her apartment and job.
Ms. Ukenta, in her lawsuit, also described being motivated by fear — “keenly aware that if the police were called, she, a Black woman, may not be believed.”
At the time of the July 2021 encounter, Ms. Ukenta had an established online presence and a YouTube channel, where she offered vignettes about gardening, food, overseas travel and cultural events in Newark, where she lives.
She posted the Victoria’s Secret video in installments on several social media sites, and the brief encounter in the Mall at Short Hills in Millburn, one of the wealthiest communities in New Jersey, quickly tapped the internet’s rage.
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 No. 1 in a compilation of the “Top 25 Most Notorious Karen Videos of ALL TIME.”
A GoFundMe campaign Ms. Ukenta created — “Help Me Defend Myself Against Karen” — generated donations of more than $104,000.
The incident was held up 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 how they be getting us killed, you see that?” Ms. Ukenta says on the video.
But the clash and its aftermath were even more complicated than they seemed.
In July, Ms. Ukenta filed a lawsuit against Ms. Elphick, Victoria’s Secret, the mall and its security company, which she argues were grossly negligent, slow to respond and treated her as the antagonist rather than a victim of a fellow shopper’s attempted assault. In the video, Ms. Ukenta can be heard asking why the security officers, who do not appear until a store employee goes to fetch them, are taking so long to arrive.
“They were extremely dismissive toward her,” Ms. Ukenta’s complaint states, “and were indifferent and nonchalant about her concerns for her safety.”
When the police arrived, Ms. Elphick told an officer that her panic stemmed from fear that the video would be published and cause her to lose her job and her apartment, according to a police report.
As images of Ms. Elphick ricocheted around the world, an online commenter urged fellow viewers to contact a school district where Ms. Elphick had had an internship to demand that their “racist employee” be fired. She began getting harassing calls and as recently as April contacted the police to report that a man who referred to the Victoria’s Secret video had called her and threatened to rape and kill her, court records show.
“I was horrified,” Tom Toronto, president of Bergen County’s United Way, which runs the residential complex where Ms. Elphick lives, said about the video’s aftermath and what he called a “total loss of perspective and proportion.”
“She has a disorder. She has anxiety,” he said. “She had a meltdown. Then the world we live in took over and it became something entirely different than what it actually was.”
Ms. Elphick, through her lawyer, declined to comment.
None of the videos on Ms. Ukenta’s YouTube channel have had more viewers than those centered on Ms. Elphick’s behavior, and her YouTube channel now has more than 26,000 subscribers.
Ms. Elphick’s counterclaim 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 published since the Short Hills mall incident that are critical of a landlord and several retail stores; the filings points to those videos as evidence that she has pursued a broader pattern of “harassment.”
“Ukenta has made a job out of preying on individuals from behind a keyboard,” the complaint states, “inciting hate while taking advantage of victims and the public at large for her own financial gain.”
It is an accusation that Ms. Ukenta’s lawyer, Tracey C. Hinson, strenuously rejects, and one that she said only underscored the wisdom of the impulse that led Ms. Ukenta to refuse to stop recording in the first place.
“She knew that in Millburn, New Jersey, she would not be believed,” Ms. Hinson said. “And that is exactly what has transpired.”
Ms. Ukenta has also continued to publish videos that do not depict conflict, including positive dining and shopping experiences.
Lawyers for the lingerie store and the security company did not reply to requests for comment. A lawyer for the mall declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.
It is unclear how Ms. Ukenta used the money she raised through GoFundMe. When reached by phone, she said she was not able to immediately discuss the matter.
But Ms. Ukenta has said online that she believed it was only fair that she should benefit financially from video content widely viewed on social media. “Why wouldn’t I want to make $ off MY videos if everyone else is,” she wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, two months after the incident.
Ms. Hinson said she could not quantify how much income, if any, Ms. Ukenta earned from online activity, and she stressed that her client’s social media presence was irrelevant to the recorded interaction at Victoria’s Secret.
“It’s her right,” Ms. Hinson said. “She has a right to let the public know what happened to her.”
“This is nothing but a ploy designed to disparage,” she added.
Videos of white women who are quick to either cry or call the authorities, usually on people of color, became common during the pandemic and increased in frequency as protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, swept the country. In 2018, a San Francisco woman who called the authorities about a Black girl selling bottled water and a New York woman with an unleashed dog who dialed 911 after a tense 2020 encounter with a Black bird-watcher in Central Park became notorious early examples.
Apryl Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who has studied videos that depict white women as entitled aggressors, said so-called Karen memes can serve a valuable role in the struggle for racial equity.
That they have appeared less frequently in the last year, she said, was an indication that they can be effective tools for exposing racism.
“People have learned that there are social ramifications for being noted as a Karen,” she said, referring to the potential loss of employment and social standing.
Professor Williams said she was not familiar with Ms. Ukenta’s YouTube channel or her other videos. But their volume does not invalidate the behavior depicted, she said.
“Sure — maybe it generates money for her,” Professor Williams said. “But maybe she’s saying, ‘This is Karen behavior and I’m documenting it for everybody to see.’ ”
It is unsurprising that Victoria’s Secret Karen has remained a cultural touchstone even two years after the incident, according to academics who study media anthropology.
Online posts that highlight heightened emotions like anger, outrage or disgust tend to spread “farthest and fastest,” said James P. Walsh, director of the graduate criminology department at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
An aura of credibility then attaches to the content once it is widely liked or shared — affirmation that, in turn, expands its reach.
“It just kind of snowballs,” Professor Walsh said, “and gets out of hand.”