Comebacks for ‘Karens’ with Comedian W. Kamau Bell

Comebacks for ‘Karens’ with Comedian W. Kamau Bell

While it feels like the nation is trying to reconcile and grow from its racist past, some people aren’t ready for that yet. Especially one particular group: you know, the “Karens,” white women who have elected themselves as honorary police officers and use their white privilege to harass minorities for no real reason.

So on the “Black ISH” episode of the Adult ISH Podcast, Comedian W. Kamau Bell and I came up with a game called “Hot Potato Racism” to deal with Karen run-ins (and others who just don’t get it). The idea is that when anyone throws racism at you, you just toss it right back. While the comebacks may not necessarily calm the Karens you meet, they will help you live your best life.

Check out the scenarios I ran through with Kamau and his comebacks.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Nyge: So I’m going to read you three real-life scenarios and you’re going to tell me how you would react to them. 

Kamau: So this happened to real people? 

Nyge: Real people. 

Kamau: Alright.

Nyge: You transferred to a mostly white private school in the fifth grade. On your first day, the dean gives you a tour of the school that ends in the basketball gym. You’ve had no previous conversations with him about basketball at all. But, without seeing you shoot a ball, they make you sign up for the team on the spot. Kamau, how do you react? 

Kamau: First of all, that could literally be my story. I don’t think that happened. 

Nyge: It actually happened to me. 

Kamau: Yeah, I was getting that impression. Fifth grade is hard because you’re not really in a position to confront authority. So my thing would be, when you’re in fifth grade, anytime anything is a half inch out of line, you go find a trusted adult. Now, that adult is not a trusted adult, so you gotta take it to your parents. Especially at a new school.

Nyge: But also, you feel, like, a little weird because you’re like, “I can hoop a little bit, so nothing’s wrong.” But… 

Kamau: So I would make sure that kid knew to come to a trusted, preferably Black adult. Or if you’re, like, adopted by white people, that’s fine too. But, if you’re gonna go to that because it was the dean, then be like, “Can you also teach my child to read?” 

Nyge: That might help a little bit.

Kamau: Basketball is good, but… 

Nyge: Exactly. So, scenario two. You hop on the bus. There are no seats open besides the seat next to a white woman and her bag is on it. You ask her if you could sit right there and she says, “Sorry, no. I can’t move it.” But, at the next stop, you see her move it for a white man who she clearly does not know. Now, how do you react? 

Kamau: This is where you go back to the area of the seat and you stand across from her and make sure you catch your gaze, and, with the biggest smile on your face, just be like, “mmm.” 

Nyge: Yeah, I know you’re racist.”

Kamau: And when she tries to move away from you, you can’t mean mug her because that’s the cops. It’s hard to call the cops on a Black guy for smiling. Just sort of like, “ahh.”

Nyge: Probably happens from time to time.

Kamau: I think you want to at least have her go home and go “this Black guy wouldn’t stop smiling.”

Nyge: Yeah. Like, “I know. I saw this happen.”

Kamau: You have to figure out a way to make that person feel ridiculous. For me, a lot of times you just want people to walk away like, “What was that?” because then they have to tell the story. They might not even remember the seat thing that happened, because that’s how racism works. But you just want to let them walk away with the story.

Nyge: That’s the point of “Hot Potato Racism.”

Kamau: Yeah. You don’t care how, you just know that they have to tell somebody. 

Nyge: Bring that racism home. So, scenario three. Your wife and her mom friends are kicking it at a lovely cafe with a name that rhymes with film wood cafe. 

Kamau: This did not happen to you.

Nyge: This did not happen to me.

Kamau: I mean, it could have.

Nyge: You head over to the cafe to meet up with them. Upon arrival, one of the cafe employees tells you to scram or stop trying to sell things to this lovely group of moms. Kamau, how do you react?

Kamau: You get super pissed. Your wife, in that moment, realizes what happens because you’ve been together for a long time. (You know, she’s white.) She knows how to read black situations because we’ve been working together. We take the baby. Put the baby in the car. My wife goes back to the cafe and has the benefit of her white skin to sort of get mad in that moment. Then you give the cafe every opportunity to apologize and explain their actions. They take zero of them and then you blow them up on the internet with a blog that goes Bay Area viral. We knew that if this is happening to me [a famous person], it’s happening to lots of people. So we have to stand up for those people who don’t have, you know, 100,000 Twitter followers, or whatever it was at the time. 

Nyge: Slight flex. 

Kamau: Now I got 290,000. But back then, four years ago… 

Nyge: This clearly did not happen to me. This happened to who, Kamau?

Kamau: Happened to me, W. Kamau Bell, my wife, Melissa Hudson Bell and my daughter. 

Nyge: Right.

Kamau: Thirteen week old daughter. 

Nyge: That’s insane. So, moving on, you passed the test. 

Kamau: Yay, I can stay!

Nyge: You did a great job on “Hot Potato Racism.” 

Kamau: We should really make that [game] if we could. 

Nyge: Yeah, can I get a little?

Kamau: Yeah, we can get a little. 

Nyge: We’ll work that out later. 

Kamau: Shark Tank! We’ll work on Netflix.

W. Kamau Bell is a comedian whose show “United Shades of America” airs on CNN. Check out our Black ISH episode of Adult ISH where this conversation was featured. 

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