The Karen, a white woman who surveys, inconveniences, and terrorizes service workers and people of color, is a relatively new term in the culture, but her character type has been with us for centuries. In this episode of Decoder Ring, we explore the history of this type, from the code names used during enslavement to the contemporary menace of the COVID age. From “Miss Ann” to the “Becky” of Sir Mix-a-Lot to more recent names like “Permit Patty,” these codes have served an important function to identify danger and ward off potential harassment or violence.
The modern Karen, as popularized by Reddit, Dane Cook, Mean Girls, and the now-endless stream of online videos of Karens gone wild, is a kind of composite character—combining the most threatening parts of so many different Karen types into a potent symbol of white entitlement.
On this episode, the voices you’ll hear include linguist Anne H. Charity Hudley, writer Dart Adams, sociologist Apryl Williams, host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast John McWhorter, Vox digital culture reporter Aja Romano, economist Trevon Logan, and Karen Ruttner.*
This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.
Correction, July 13, 2020: This page originally misspelled Apryl Williams’ first name.