Some actors and actresses we grow up with after watching them in our childhood classics. If you’re an 80’s baby, you more than likely have a childhood memory with one of Karen Malina White’s film or tv projects. She is one actress who made an impression on me as a child growing up. I’m not sure if her voice or her character’s name in A Different World, “Charmaine,” caught my attention, but somehow she became an actress I am always excited to see on screen.
This year brought many opportunities to see her as Disney released The Proud Family Louder & Prouder, she has a recurring role on BET+ Bruh, and she was also cast in Netflix’s Dahmer series. The series is now Netflix’s 9th most-watched English-Language Series of All Time.
The Howard University alum has portrayed lots of roles over the years on some of the Black culture’s favorite tv shows, such as The Cosby Show, Living Single, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but we will also learn what she was doing in between time.
I was honored to sit down with the nominated actress to discuss her work over the past twenty years and her aging as a Black woman. Get into our interview below.
Fancy: I read that you were crowned Miss Howard University, which led to your role in Lean On Me. I wanted to understand if those events were connected. Did the movie role simply come about after that, or was it something about winning Miss Howard that allowed you to get that role?
Karen: No, not connected at all. I graduated from Howard in 1986; yes, I was Miss Howard University in ‘85 and ‘86, my senior year. I wouldn’t land the role in Lean On Me until three years later, in 1989. So no connection. Being at Howard and having that foundation just really allowed me to go ahead and be my unique self and bring that to every role.
Fancy: I see. So what was it like playing the same character on both The Cosby Show and A Different World? It doesn’t seem like it should be challenging, but I’m curious about what it was like for you.
Karen: No, it was so great. I mean, certainly, The Cosby Show was just iconic, and everybody wanted to be on it. Having the opportunity to play that role and be on the last two years- Cosby was a dream come true. To hear that they wanted to spin off my character and have me go to A Different World, which was another fabulous show and just as awesome. That show certainly resonated with everybody who had attended an HBCU like me. It brought me out to California, and so that was just tremendous. It was wonderful and just really opened up my career for sure.
Fancy: While you were working on these series, did you ever think that you were a part of something that would be so historical? Because it wasn’t just one series that’s for the culture that people are still talking about right now, but two shows. Did it ever cross your mind that you were a part of greatness?
Karen: Well, with The Cosby Show, you had so many legends. Then different people appeared in A Different World, like Leslie Uggams and Patty Labelle. You just had iconic people throughout both series, so I was very well aware of that. Being given the opportunity to be a part of that history was certainly wonderful.
Even with Lean On Me, I had no idea it would be such a classic movie still being played today. You just don’t know. You’re just in it, and you’re doing the work, and you’re just trying to do your best. You can’t even grasp how much impact it will have.
Fancy: Following your work on those shows, there was an episode of Living Single where you played a gay character. What was that like in a time when that was a very taboo subject? Did you tell yourself I’m representing a community, or did you hesitate?
Karen: Right, no hesitation. I thought it was a fun role. I loved getting the opportunity to work with Erica Alexander again, and Living Single was a great show. It was really about being amongst those women, those actors and actresses on the show, and getting to work with Yvette Lee Bowser, the creator. So that was great; it was fun.
Again, I wasn’t thinking about making a statement. You know you do the work. I’m an actor; I play all kinds of people. Indeed, having a gay, Black character on TV became very pivotal.
Fancy: That’s understandable. Then there was The Proud Family, where you were the voice of Dijonay Jones. How did you get into voiceover acting?
Karen: I kind of fell into it. At first, the show was not even a pilot. It was a presentation to try to sell it and pitch it to Disney and the wonderful creator Bruce Smith. We just kind of did, and it was almost a year before I even heard back about it. I totally forgot about doing the audition.
When it came around, they were like, “We got picked up. We’re going to do some episodes.” It was great, and I loved it. You get to go in, and you just use your voice. You don’t have to worry about hair, makeup, wardrobe, etc. So it was really fun, and I still enjoy it. I work with Kyla (Pratt), Tommy (Davidson), and my fellow alumnus Paula J. Parker. It was fun, and it continues to be fun. We’re really excited about season two of Louder and Prouder.
Fancy: Wow. I know for me, as a child, seeing those Black sitcoms or Black cartoons meant so much to me because it wasn’t something that we got to see often. Whenever there was anything, it was to be celebrated in a big way. Those roles were probably rare throughout that time. How did you stay motivated to continue, or what did you do in the meantime in between things?
Karen: I do theater a lot, so I always did theater. I love the stage. It’s where I honed my craft. As some say, it really separates the boys from the men. It’s not something everybody can do, so I always did theater in between. I also voice audiobooks now. There are so many avenues and venues for actors to work in between work that we don’t often hear about. I was grateful to be able to do some voice work.
Fancy: It’s great that you have options. Often we think we haven’t heard from or seen so and so, but they’re doing other things. They may just be more behind the scenes. Also, I think that gives people other ideas as to why it’s not always about getting a part in a movie or playing a visible role in the production. There are other avenues out there. So what is it like to be a part of a Tyler Perry production? Does he give everybody the type of birthday gifts we saw with Crystal Renee?
Karen: I don’t know, but I know he pays well. He made a point of really saying to me that you’ve been in this business for so long and that he really wanted to honor me and thank me for my contributions to portraying Black characters and the roles that I did. And he really did honor me. He went above and beyond to get me what he thought I should be compensated. He pays my worth, what I deserve. I was so humbled by his generosity.
Getting to be and work on his sound stage is just as amazing. It’s beautiful and magnanimous. It was such a treat just to see how he really trains young Black and Brown people, the young people on his set. The training, the work- I was just humbled by him. He is very generous.
Fancy: I’ve heard that before, too. It sounds like it’s been an incredible experience for you. I’m curious, what career advice would you give to other Black women about pursuing their passion?
Karen: If it’s your passion, you must pursue it. This is undoubtedly an up-and-down business, but it’s what I love to do. So, as I said, you find ways to pay your bills in between gigs, and if it’s what you want to do, just put your all into it. I certainly didn’t see a lot of Black women actresses, certainly not darker-skinned actresses. I’m here to say that even when I wore locs on Malcolm and Eddie, people didn’t know that you could wear your natural hair. You didn’t have to look like everybody else. It’s just about being your unique self, being committed to your passions, and going forward. That’s why we’re here, to go for our passions, our dreams, for sure.
Fancy: Was there ever a role you felt you had to play that took more of you or that you felt was a challenge?
Karen: It was definitely the Dahmer series, playing the mother to one of his victims, Anthony Hughes. He was hearing impaired; he was deaf, and so that took a lot. I don’t have any kids, but I have lots of nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews, and that role really stretched me. It allowed me to use some of my skills in American Sign Language. However, the pain and what I imagine Shirley Hughes had to go through was challenging. I was honored to be able to play her. That was really a very tough one for me.
Fancy: You did an awesome job with it, too. Also, with you just saying that about sign language. Did you know sign language before the movie?
Karen: I have been flirting on and off since I was 15 with sign language. I first saw it when I attended the Pennsylvania Governor School of the Arts one summer and loved the language. It was beautiful. I’ve been trying to study it and learn it. I studied some more later on when I was actually on Cosby. Erica Alexander and I took a sign language class together. We went to Galilee University for a silent weekend. So I wasn’t fluent in it. I had to have a coach, but it was wonderful.
Fancy: That’s really cool. I also read that you are a Buddhist, correct?
Karen: I am.
Fancy: How did that come about?
Karen: Wow. I’m in SGI Nature and Buddhist. There are many facets of Buddhism, just like Christianity. It came about, actually, when I was doing Malcolm and Eddie. I really had a tough time with that. A lot of my insecurities and buttons got pushed about my looks and my character being called ugly by Eddie Griffin’s character. I really had a rough time. A friend of mine at the time, jazz drummer and composer Terry Lynn Carrington, introduced me to the practice, and it was when I chanted- Have you heard of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō
Karen: Yes, everyone remembers it from the Tina Turner movie (What’s Love Got to Do With It?). It’s that same practice, and when I first started chanting, it was just something that just clicked. It was almost as if that was what I had been missing. It is a daily practice, and it helps me stay grounded and ensure that my happiness is not tied to anything outside myself. At that time, work was affecting my happiness, and I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to undo that. Buddhism was the key for me.
Fancy: Wow, that sounds peaceful. I met, I think, maybe one other person that practices, and so it does involve a lot of meditation. Right. I want to make certain practices.
Karen: Yeah, but it’s almost like one of the actresses is from Netflix’s Bridgerton says. I forget her name right now, but she’s also an SGI Buddhist, and she says we’re the noisy Buddhists. So it’s not a quiet meditation. We vocalize; we chant. The purpose is to face your life with your eyes open, to tap into your best self, and bring that out every day just to simplify it.
Fancy: I never noticed the difference before, but I get it now. So what advice would you give Black women about womanhood, period? It doesn’t have to be a working Black woman or one interested in acting, but just a Black woman.
Karen: That it keeps getting better and better. I’m in my fifties, and you hear this often, but it is true. It keeps getting better and better. The more we can just step into our authentic selves to really be ourselves unapologetically, the easier it is to really honor and value ourselves. The more we can do that kind of work, we can enjoy life as it’s supposed to be enjoyed.
Fancy: So I ask all of our guests this, but how would you describe your swagher? What makes Karen, Karen?
Karen: I’m funny; I’m witty. I think as I get older, I really treasure meeting people. I’m very friendly, open, and down to earth.
Fancy: My last question is, what’s next for you?
Karen: What’s next? Well, I’m on season four of BET+’s Bruh. You’ll catch me in a couple of episodes there. We will also be starting season two of The Proud Family soon.
The great thing about this business, it’s both scary and exciting. Like, you never know when your next gig is coming. I’m looking forward to seeing what that is. So it’s just stimulating. What’s the next thing? It keeps me on my toes, so I’m looking forward to that too.
Stay abreast of Karen’s work on Instagram at @karenmalinawhite.