Karen, Miss Ann & America's History Of Entitled White Women : Code Switch "Karen" has become cultural shorthand for a white woman who wields her race as a cudgel. And look, we all love to hate a good Karen. But where did this archetype come from? What will the next iteration of Karen be? And what are we missing by focusing on the Karens of the world?
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What's In A 'Karen'?

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What's In A 'Karen'?

What's In A 'Karen'?

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and this is CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight a woman from New York City who was seen on camera angrily confronting a Black man in Central Park was hit with a criminal charge today that could send her to jail for up to a year.

DEMBY: All right. So y'all remember Amy Cooper from a few weeks ago. It was only a few weeks ago? God.

MERAJI: How could we forget?

DEMBY: Yeah. If you did forget, she was a white woman who called the police on a Black man in New York City's Central Park. She said that Black man was threatening her.

MERAJI: He was not. He was asking her to put a leash on her dog. And as we all should know by now, calling the cops on a Black man can have serious, sometimes deadly consequences.

DEMBY: Recognizing just how big a problem this can be, Shamann Walton, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, introduced a new ordinance that would fine people who called the police for help in situations like Amy Cooper's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAMANN WALTON: At this point, because it's leading to death and people being harmed, there should be some type of fine for using resources and leading to the harm of people from these phone calls.

DEMBY: It's called the CAREN Act - Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: It's CAREN with a C because they couldn't find the right word to sync with a K - like, you can't say caution with a K - and because politicians, like rappers from the '90s, love them some acronyms.

MERAJI: (Laughter) So it's official, Gene - Amy Cooper is a Karen.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: You know Karen. She wants to speak to your manager. She swears at you if you ask her to wear a mask in public. She tells you to go back to where you came from. She calls the police on you for just about anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get out now. There's three numbers I can dial. 911.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You call the police on an 8-year-old little girl...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Illegally selling water without a permit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: On my property...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah. I'd like to report that someone is illegally using a charcoal grill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I need a description of them. What race are they?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: African American.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And how old, approximately?

DEMBY: So as you might have surmised, this week we talking about Karens.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: And to do so, we're bringing on our very own Karen - Karen Grigsby Bates.

MERAJI: Karen, explain your people.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Shereen. Hey, Gene. And let's be really clear - they are not my people. But as a Karen - but not that kind of Karen - I felt it was my civic duty to get us all some answers.

DEMBY: Hashtag - not all Karens. So we know that Karens are a thing, obviously. But is there a proto-Karen?

GRIGSBY BATES: Actually, there is. In fact, Karens are part of a lineage of entitled white women going back a couple centuries in this country. Before Karen was Karen, there was a forerunner in the '90s - Becky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY GOT BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Oh, my God. Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She must be one of those rap guys' girlfriends.

MERAJI: It is so big. She must be one of those rap guys' girlfriends.

Obviously, for those of you who are very familiar with hip-hop from the '90s (laughter), that was the beginning of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back."

GRIGSBY BATES: Yep. But long before Becky, there was another category of woman, an original Karen. And to lay out her history, I called in a little bit of help from someone who has deep knowledge of Karen and her ancestors.

MEREDITH CLARK: My name's Meredith Clark.

MERAJI: Damn. Karen, I was really hoping her name was also Karen.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. That would've been too much.

CLARK: I'm an assistant professor in the department of media studies at the University of Virginia.

GRIGSBY BATES: Meredith says Karen is part of a continuum, that before there were Karens and Beckys, there was Miss Ann.

CLARK: But all of those names go back to, as far as I can tell, Jim Crow-era times and even earlier, right? But specifically in Jim Crow, Black folks were not permitted to respond or to talk to white men and white women by their first names. They had to give them an honorific, and the same privilege was not afforded to Black men and Black women.

And so you would often hear about Black folks talking about white folks with this honorific and referring to the things that they experienced with them. Like, I remember my mother, whose mother was a domestic, talking about Miss Ann and Mr. Charlie - so a white man and a white woman - and using those to refer to these people without directly referring to them - kind of when Black folks are talking about one thing but saying another.

GRIGSBY BATES: Miss Ann was a kind of cheeky, in-group shorthand amongst Black people. You might say something like, oh, you do not want to cross Miss Ann today; she is in a mood.

MERAJI: Yeah. It's like when you call any annoying white guy Chad.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) There you go. Meredith says the exact names might change over the decades, but there's a consistent line that runs from Miss Ann to Becky to Karen.

CLARK: The thing that makes Miss Ann Miss Ann is that she recognizes her privilege, and she uses it almost as a cudgel or weapon to keep certain folks in their place, to keep Black people in particular in their, quote-unquote, "place." And as we even saw with someone like Amy Cooper, Miss Ann knows what her place is in society today, and she uses it to her advantage.

DEMBY: So, I mean, a lot of our listeners are white women, and anytime we talk about white women and the particular ways that they benefit from white supremacy, the ways they engage in white supremacy, we get emails. They point out that white men actually hold the levers of power.

MERAJI: And that they've been marginalized. And it is a lot easier to beat up on women, Gene. We see that on the podcast a lot.

DEMBY: Right. And look - Karens are a menace. But at the risk of sounding like I'm caping for Karens, we also have a lot more practice just being dismissive of opinionated women in public spaces, period, to your point, Shereen.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm sure Meredith would agree with both of you. But, she says, people need to remember that racial hierarchies and gender hierarchies are all intersecting in different ways.

CLARK: So in a household, a white woman might be, you know, second, maybe third depending on what her family owned and what sort of property they had - so second or third in charge in her household. And one of the ways to reinforce that hierarchy was to remind people, constantly and consistently, exactly where she was and what her privilege was.

GRIGSBY BATES: And a crucial part of upholding those systems is that when things aren't working the way she thinks they ought, Miss Ann will call on a man to try to carry out her will, whether it's a husband, a brother or a security guard, even a police officer.

MERAJI: So even if Miss Ann doesn't have all the power, she definitely has the ear of the people who do, people who have a lot of practice in protecting white womanhood, oftentimes with deadly violence.

DEMBY: Right. Like, think of Emmett Till or Claude Neal - who, Shereen, you reported on - both of whom were lynched because of alleged transgressions against white women. Or the Central Park Five case, which ignited anger all across the country. Safeguarding the virtue of white women has always been a central plank of white supremacy in the U.S.

GRIGSBY BATES: Exactly. And while a lot of the basic characteristics of Miss Anns and Beckys and Karens are the same, Meredith says some of the power dynamics have started to change in large part because of how social media amplifies Black conversations. Twitter, Facebook and so on allowed Karen, like so much other Black parlance, to spread quickly into the wider world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KENAN THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Welcome to Black Jeopardy - the only Jeopardy where our prize money is paid in installments.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIGSBY BATES: You remember that "Saturday Night Live" skit called Black Jeopardy, right?

MERAJI: Yes. It's one of the few funny things on "SNL," in my humble opinion - the Tom Hanks one, specifically.

DEMBY: Yeah, that Tom Hanks one was very good - a very good, like, encapsulation of race and class dynamics.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. We're not talking about that one, though. This is the second Black Jeopardy skit. So in it, Chadwick Boseman was playing his "Black Panther" character, T'Challa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) And - oh, this is so exciting. All the way from Wakanda, it's T'Challa.

(CHEERING)

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Greetings, Darnell. I am a big fan of this program.

GRIGSBY BATES: And T'Challa is getting all his answers wrong in Jeopardy because the game is based on Black American idioms, which he doesn't get at all because, duh, he's from Wakanda. But at the last minute, he's asked about someone named Karen bringing her potato salad to his cookout.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Before I answer, a few questions - this woman, Karen, she is Caucasian, eh?

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) So something tells me that I should say...

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Say it.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) ...It is only with a tiny bit of salt...

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) That's exactly right.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) ...And no paprika.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) No paprika, no.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) And she will probably add something unnecessary like raisins.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) I know, right?

(LAUGHTER)

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) So something tells me that I should say...

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Say it.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Aw, hell no, Karen. Keep your bland-ass potato salad to yourself.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

MERAJI: Look - maybe it's because I'm Iranian and Puerto Rican and both sides of me puts raisins and currants in things - raisins in potato salad doesn't actually sound that bad. Don't at me. I'm just saying.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) Or send her your recipes with raisins and whatever. But, anyway, Meredith says this moment and a few others like it is when the nation kind of got it, too.

CLARK: And I think that's one of those moments that you had crossover from, you know, this is an internal joke among Black people to, wow, this is something that can be consumed by pop culture.

GRIGSBY BATES: So after that skit and a few other social media incidents, everybody knew what a Karen was. The point of Miss Ann was for Black people to have a way of talking about white women without their knowledge. But the point of Karen is that you can publicly call those women out for their behavior.

DEMBY: So Karen and Becky call the cops - and so giving a name to that phenomenon gives people, Black people in particular, some of the power back.

MERAJI: At least to ensure that there are some social consequences, you know, that may or may not turn into legal ones. We know it did in the case of Amy Cooper.

GRIGSBY BATES: Which brings us to Karen as a slur. You may have seen that some British feminists want Karen erased because they say it's a sexist and classless slur.

DEMBY: Sure. Whatever.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) Yeah. Meredith's kind of like you, Gene; she is not having any of that.

CLARK: To me, it just points to another unfortunate characteristic of Karen, and that is that she is only able to see the world from her worldview. She doesn't think for a moment about what this might mean to another person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And that right there is classic Karen behavior.

GRIGSBY BATES: It is. But, Shereen, Meredith says there's still hope. She says instead of white women getting defensive about being called Karens, they could try to honestly examine their motives for their behavior. And if they find themselves tempted to do something Karen-ish, like calling the police on a little girl who's selling bottled water on a hot day, they should ask themselves...

CLARK: What is it that you are trying to accomplish? Is that something that can be accomplished by you simply walking away from the situation? Is it something that can be accomplished by you reconsidering what's actually happening and maybe seeing it from someone else's perspective? Is it something that can be accomplished by simply minding your business?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: Imagine that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: When we come back, a look at what the next evolutionary step of the Karen might be.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

GRIGSBY BATES: Karen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So, KGB, recently, you talked with Kiley Reid, who is from Philly, whose first novel, "Such A Fun Age," just got a lot of love from critics and from readers everywhere.

GRIGSBY BATES: It did. It's a really smart book, Gene, and it has a lot of racial politics in it, including multiple characters who might be described as Karens. Some of them are classic Karens, and some are more next-gen Karens, Karens you wouldn't necessarily peg as Karens at first glance.

MERAJI: Karen, you and I talked about "Such A Fun Age" on an earlier CODE SWITCH episode, so everybody go check that out after you're done with this one. But in the meantime, can you give us a quick recap of what "Such A Fun Age" is about?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, it's about a young Black woman named Emira Tucker. She's 25. She doesn't really know what she wants to do with her life yet.

KILEY REID: And, you know, was kind of cooking the same crockpot meal four times a week. And she does know that she is very good at babysitting. So she's out with her girlfriends. They're having a great time. And her employer, Alix Chamberlain, calls her and says, please come and babysit for us. We've had a family emergency. Can you take our child to the grocery store? I will pay you double. Emira is a bit broke, so she says, absolutely, and she heads on over. She grabs Briar, who's 3 years old. They go to a grocery store. They're having a fun time. They're dancing in the aisles and they're looking at the nuts until a woman and a security guard, upon seeing a Black woman with a white child, accuse her of kidnapping. It's a familiar scene in that way, where someone pulls out their cellphone. She is humiliated. And there is a lot of urging from the security guard and white woman that they are just here for safety; they just want to make sure everything's OK. But they are not trusting this Black woman at all. She's just doing her job.

MERAJI: So a white woman at a fancy grocery store is doing this version of if you see something, say something. She sees a Black woman with a white child and assumes she's being kidnapped. Yup, that sounds like your run-of-the-mill Karen.

DEMBY: Retail is probably like the natural habitat of the run-of-the-mill Karen, the Karenis domesticus (ph).

GRIGSBY BATES: Yep. But she's not the only one. Emira is surrounded by people who think they know who Emira is and what's best for her, like her employer, Alix. Kiley said Alix is a type of Karen that might be harder to pin down than your supermarket Karens because...

REID: Alix has a lot of power, and she has a lot of manners and she has a lot of composure in the way that she wields her racism. And I think that she is a very familiar figure to a lot of Black women, between co-workers or someone you do a carpool with, who has all of the best intentions yet is shaping the world around her to what she thinks is best.

MERAJI: Oh, I know her. That Karen works at and/or listens to NPR.

DEMBY: She got the tote bag. She got the T-shirt.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yep, the matching water bottle, too.

REID: I think that's where it gets a bit insidious because I do truly think that Alix wants to be this girl's friend. I think that those emotions of truly loving someone and almost having a crush on someone can live very harmoniously with not seeing them as a real human with real desires and conflicting emotions. And I almost think it's scarier that we can have all of those emotions together of truly loving someone and also being able to do such harm by not treating them like a human.

GRIGSBY BATES: The kind of person Alix is might be harder for us to recognize as a Karen because, as she said, she does have a certain polish and presents herself in a way that would indicate that she's not Karen, yet she is.

REID: And I can't help but think that that is a closer picture of what the, quote-unquote, "Karen" is, rather than just a woman who's upset and having a fit and calling a manager. It is someone who is an active part of a broken system. And even though they're not doing the violence, they are very much in charge of where it happens and how it happens.

GRIGSBY BATES: And there are others in the book. Not all of them are women, and not all of them are white. One is Alix's best friend, who turns out to be a sort of wealthy Black Karen. Another is the man she winds up dating after this dust up, who happens to be the person who was filming the incident in the grocery store, even though Emira has told him she doesn't want to be filmed. He's white. And if you read the book, you notice that he also has a lot of Karen-like tendencies, like deciding to film Emira because you might want it later. He's making choices for her despite the fact that she's chosen something else for herself, which brings us to one of Kylie's most important points, which is that the trend of Karen videos is complicated and can be distracting.

REID: I'm conflicted because I think it's a great thing that this type of racism can be caught and called out. At the same time, I think the way that people respond to these videos can present a few problems. The first thing is that these videos, it's this cartoon capturable racism. It's dramatic. It's someone saying the N-word. And it's very easy to say, I would never do that. That's not me. But it's impossible to record some of the more impactful forms of racism, like a doctor not believing a Black woman when she says she's in pain or rejecting a housing application because of someone's last name. You can't record that. And those forms are often harder to address and also can have really catastrophic effects. And I think the second problem with it is it makes racism seem like this individual choice. And I think for every Karen threatening someone's life, there's so many more Black people receiving low quality to no health care. And so as much as Karens are truly problematic, I do worry that the satisfaction that comes from cancelling a Karen is a distraction from a bigger problem that can be with an Alex or a Kelly.

GRIGSBY BATES: In other words, the people who seem woke, who say the right things but who are still deeply invested in the structures of racism. Kylie says that might be the next face of Karen.

MERAJI: This book - I can't believe I haven't read this book yet, especially after the last time we talked about it. No more excuses.

GRIGSBY BATES: It's a really good book. And I think you'll like it, Shereen. and I think, Gene, you will too, if only because it's set in Philadelphia, and you probably know all the landmarks. But you also know the racial politics of all of this stuff. And I have a question for you both. We've been talking Karens for a bit now. And I'm wondering, on a personal level, who springs to mind - real or fictional - when I say Karen. Do you guys have any favorite Karens?

DEMBY: Present company excluded.

MERAJI: I have one.

GRIGSBY BATES: OK.

MERAJI: The Karen you love to hate. I guess that's all Karens - except for you, Karen.

GRIGSBY BATES: Thank you. Who's your Karen?

MERAJI: So for me, it's Dolores Umbridge from the Ministry of Magic in "Harry Potter."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX")

IMELDA STAUNTON: (As Dolores Umbridge) Study hard and you will be rewarded. Fail to do so and the consequences may be severe.

MERAJI: I believe she is the ultimate Karen.

DEMBY: But some people might just say that that's like J.K. Rowling.

MERAJI: Oh, zing.

GRIGSBY BATES: Snap. For me, it's Reese Witherspoon playing opposite Kerry Washington in the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." Reese's character, Elena, I think is very Karen. She's a tightly wound suburban mom. She's controlling, very aware of the social hierarchies around her. She has a blazing argument at one point with Kerry Washington's character, Mia, when Elena tells Mia she is not a good mother. She didn't make good choices for her child. And Mia goes off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE")

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Mia Warren) You didn't make good choices. You had good choices - options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Elena Richardson) Again, that's the difference between you and me. I would never make this about race.

MERAJI: Oh, how many times have we heard that? That's Karen right there in a quote.

DEMBY: You can pick like any Reese Witherspoon character from like the last five years and she's like nailing it - she's nailing the Karen. If you watch "Big Little Lies," her character on "Big Little Lies" is like the apotheosis of Karendom. Anyway, thank you, Reese Witherspoon, for your magnificent portrayal of the Karen in the wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: That is our show. This show was edited by Leah Donnella and produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry.

MERAJI: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Kumari Devarajan, Natalie Escobar, Jess Kung, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson.

DEMBY: You can follow us on Twitter. I'm @geedee215. That's GeeDee215. Woop (ph). Shereen is @radiomirage. KGB is @karenbates.

MERAJI: And we always want to hear from you. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Save that venom for the Karens, not for me, please. And subscribe to our newsletter by going to newsletters.npr.org/codeswitch.

GRIGSBY BATES: If you want to hear Kylie talk more about the issues she raises in "Such A Fun Age," she and I will be doing that on IG Live on the CODE SWITCH Instagram site this Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Come with your questions. Meanwhile...

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. But one more time, for the people in the back - not that Karen.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

GRIGSBY BATES: See you.

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