Uber has suspended its head of diversity, equity and inclusion after Black and Hispanic employees complained about the workplace events she moderated exploring the experience of white American women under the title “Don’t Call Me Karen”.
The ride-hailing app has confirmed that it has asked Bo Young Lee, who has led its DEI department for five years, to take a leave of absence while the company works out “next steps”. Her suspension is the latest wave of chaos to strike the $72bn company over its corporate culture.
Lee’s suspension, which was first reported by the New York Times, follows mounting internal discontent over two “Don’t Call Me Karen” sessions that she convened on Zoom for up to 500 employees. The events, one in April and the second last week, were billed as “diving into the spectrum of the American white woman’s experience from some of our female colleagues, particularly how they navigate around the ‘Karen’ persona”.
The sessions were held as part of a “Moving Forward” series of discussions on race and minority experiences organized by the company in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The focus on the discomfort of white women specifically over the term “Karen” was denounced by several employees as being insensitive towards people of color.
In internal Slack channels for Black and Hispanic Uber employees seen by the Times, workers said they had felt lectured at. “It was more of a lecture – I felt like I was being scolded for the entirety of that meeting,” one Black woman wrote.
Another said that she didn’t understand the premise of the session: “I think when people are called Karens it’s implied that this is someone that has little empathy to others or is bothered by minorities others that don’t look like them. Like, why can’t bad behavior not be called out?”
“Karen” has become shorthand for the actions of entitled white women who report Black and minority ethnic people to bosses or the authorities. In a notorious case in 2020, a white woman called the police on a Black man who was peacefully birdwatching in New York’s Central Park.
According to the New York Times, after the first “Don’t Call Me Karen” event, a Black staffer argued that diversity sessions should not include “tone-deaf, offensive and triggering conversations”. Lee is reported to have replied: “Sometimes being pushed out of your own strategic ignorance is the right thing to do.”
Uber has labored hard to improve and modernize its workplace culture after the 2017 resignation of its chief executive, Travis Kalanick, following months of scandals. Under his leadership, the company was alleged by a whistleblower to have fostered widespread gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
Kalanick’s replacement as chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, vowed to turn around the culture. His efforts have included a focus on DEI, led by Lee, whom he brought into the company in 2018.
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