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The evolution of a nickname for a certain type of white woman.

Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Karen was a name that was everywhere — but in a different way than it is now. Thanks to the baby boom, it felt as if every fifth person was named Karen. I knew a whole bunch of them: Karen Trader, Karen Huff, Karen Ramos, Karen Davis, Karen Petersen, Karen Johnson, Karen Robinson. Back then, you could yell “Karen!” on the schoolyard playground and watch the heads pop up.

The Karens I knew were dependable. We collected the class milk money in elementary school (Google it, young’uns) and took teachers’ notes to the principal’s office. Later, we were the babysitters who showed up on time, no prompting needed. We were class officers and community volunteers. We were not the ones in risqué prom dresses. No one was ashamed to be a Karen. Karens, for the most part, behaved. And although the name is Nordic descended, there were plenty of Black Karens in my New England hometown.

Well, as the ’60s folk song says, times, they are a-changin’. You can’t log on to your computer or glance at your phone without an example of some “Karen” somewhere behaving badly: in the park. At the big-box store. Calling police on little children on the sidewalk. Harassing her neighbors — on their own property. For these women, Karen is not the name on their birth certificates but what they have become. They are women, almost always white, who are entitled, often racist and determined to get what they want. And what they want, to a frequent degree, is the ability to determine where Black and brown bodies may or may not be present.

These Karens did not spring full-grown from the ether. Instead, they are the latest link in an evolutionary chain of white women that goes back at least a couple of centuries.

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In the recent past, before Karen, there was Becky, immortalized by Sir Mix-a-Lot in the ’90s. You know these Beckys — young white women who are as entitled as Karen but significantly more cheerful. Becky wants the Black girls in homecoming court to straighten their hair for the official photos “so we’ll all look nice.” (She also wants to know how you got your natural hair to behave that way in the first place, or touches it with or without asking.) She might know a couple of Black folks and makes assumptions about the entire culture based on her narrow experience. She can’t be racist because she’s gone out with a couple of Black guys. (Karen, on the other hand, can’t be racist because she has a Black work friend or neighbor.)

Becky is the sorority sister who will sing along to Beyoncé at the top of her voice, but unless the actual Beyoncé shows up to join her sorority (as if!), Becky won’t vote to admit any Black pledge candidates. Not because they’re Black, of course — Becky doesn’t “see color.” No, Becky won’t be voting for Black candidates because they’re not the right kind of Black. You know, the kind that “fits in.”

And way before there was Becky, there was her predecessor — Miss Ann. If that sounds kind of antebellum, that’s because it is. Miss Ann goes back to the land of cotton, to Dixie before the “War of Northern Aggression.” She may have been the mistress of a sprawling plantation or the inhabitant of a much more humble home. But whether she owned actual Black bodies or hoed her own land, Miss Ann was always going to consider herself better than the best Black person anywhere near her, because she was white.

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And white womanhood — rich or poor — was firmly placed on a pedestal, the living icon of white supremacy. Because it was so verboten to speak about white women with anything but polite deference, Black folks developed “Miss Ann” as a signifying reference; it was a moniker that allowed us to talk in code if we needed to. “You know Miss Ann: has to be right about everything, all the time!”

Karen has inherited Miss Ann’s entitlement; it has been handed down, like the family silver or an antique wedding veil. She and Becky may not wear Miss Ann’s hoop skirts, but they move through the world in the same way: certain of their right to be there, certain they have more right to be there than you. And it is that certainty that’s so dangerous. Karen knows she can call on her own community or the state to put Black bodies where she wants them. Don’t want them in the hotel swimming pool? Call the police. Think they shouldn’t be sleeping in the same dorm as you? Call the police. Angry that a child is selling ice water on a hot day on a public sidewalk near you? Oh, Officer Friendly …

Karen is much more like Miss Ann than Becky in the sense that she’s aware there will be consequences when she summons help — and that those consequences will fall most harshly on Black people, usually Black men. The lynchings of Emmett Till and Claude Neal, for example, occurred because people perceived that white women’s virtue needed protecting. A century ago, the entire neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., was burned to the ground and scores of its residents were slaughtered after a white woman claimed assault by a Black man in the elevator she operated. (Some stories say he tripped and stepped on her foot.)

There are enough histories of Black death following in the wake of white women’s displeasure in this country to make the rise of The Karens a worrisome prospect. Even when Karen is not enacting violence upon Black and brown people herself, she knows she can enlist others — especially police — to do it for her, if she wants. Isn’t that what the latest Karen, Amy Cooper, did when she called the police to (falsely) report that a Black man in Central Park was threatening her and her dog? It’s incidences like these that have inspired a San Francisco supervisor to introduce the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act. If passed, the CAREN Act would make it illegal to make false reports because of racial animus.

Given the current racial tensions in the country, I’m guessing Karen will be around for a while, and it will be more than a minute before we other Karens get our name back. But while we’re waiting for that time, I’m thinking about who should be the next link in Miss Ann’s evolutionary chain.

I’m voting for “Madison.”

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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