RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There was already a lot embedded in the name Karen. But it really caught on after this incident in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMY COOPER: There is an African American man. I am in Central Park. He is recording me and threatening myself and my dog.
MARTIN: That was Amy Cooper, whose false charge eventually ended up getting her charged in New York last month. The Internet then dubbed her the Central Park Karen. So what's in a name, and that name in particular? We asked another Karen, Karen Grigsby Bates, from our Code Switch team to explain.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Karen has become shorthand for a certain kind of woman. She's usually white, entitled and very sure that what she's doing is right. On screen, Reese Witherspoon often plays her, as she did here in "Little Fires Everywhere."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE")
REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) So rent is 300 a month. That is well below market. And it's really not about the money for us. I've lived in Shaker all my life. My parents left this rental to me. The point is to rent to someone who can enjoy it.
BATES: Karen Attiah the global opinions editor at The Washington Post. And at first, this explosion of Karens amused her. Now? Not so much.
KAREN ATTIAH: Usually when the name Karen is trending, I'm bracing myself, to be honest with you.
BATES: Because they're usually not nice depictions. Attiah has heard all the objections, that calling women Karen is classist, misogynistic, maybe even racist. But she says, nope.
ATTIAH: Someone isn't calling someone a Karen because, you know, they were born white. That's not the issue. It is a name for a behavior. It is a name for a choice.
BATES: These Karens, Attiah says, make the choice to police people of color, especially Black people - everything from their legitimate right for their bodies to be in public spaces to their bodies period. And before there was all this focus on Karen, there was Becky. Remember this?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY GOT BACK")
AMYLIA RIVAS: (As character) Oh, my god. Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends.
BATES: For the hip-hop impaired, those are the opening lines of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," the '90s hit that immortalized Becky and made her popular shorthand for a certain kind of culturally oblivious white girl. But before there was Karen or Becky, there was Miss Ann who might go back as far as the antebellum South and who for sure was around in the Jim Crow era.
MEREDITH CLARK: My name's Meredith Clark. I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia.
BATES: Meredith Clark says Miss Ann is an intra-group reference that's lasted for generations.
CLARK: 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 engaging in that signifying process that we think about when Black folks are talking about one thing but saying another.
BATES: But whether she's wearing hoop skirts or athleisure wear, Clark says, there's been a certain consistency 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."
BATES: As in this 2018 viral video from San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ERIN AUSTIN: She calling the police on an 8-year-old little girl. You can hide all you want. The whole world going to see you, boo.
ALISON ETTEL: Yeah. And illegally selling water without a permit? Yeah.
AUSTIN: On my property.
ETTEL: It's not your property.
BATES: The Washington Post's Karen Attiah says this willingness to call the police to resolve disputes to her satisfaction makes Karen not only a pain, but dangerous.
ATTIAH: Again, to me, Karen is no longer the sort of annoying person who, like, wants to see your manager. She's the one who's willing to mobilize violence against you because she can.
BATES: Which is why in San Francisco, a member of the board of supervisors introduced the CAREN Act. It's an acronym for Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies. And it would fine people who intentionally make racially biased 911 calls. Meanwhile, a lot of well-behaved Karens are hoping their name's 15 minutes is up soon. They're hoping Karen is replaced by someone else's name, anybody else's name - please.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.