Racism Is Bigger Than Me

The recent Amy Cooper incident snagged something in my brain.

Amy Cooper is a white woman who was approached by Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, and asked to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park. She protested (although the rules clearly stated that dogs should be leashed), so Christian said, “You won’t like what I’m going to do.” He took out a dog treat — apparently he carries them because owners will leash their dogs to prevent them from eating a treat from a stranger’s hand.

This made Amy angry. As her words grew heated, Christian began filming her. Furious, she called 911 to report that she was being threatened by “an African American man.” While on the phone, she finally leashed her dog. Christian said, “Thank you,” and ended the video.

Once the video was posted, Amy caught hell from the internet. She lost her job. She did apologize, and she said, “I’m not a racist.”

I’ve been thinking about her a lot since I watched the video. Because, see, I’m not a sadistic officer who gorges on power to the point that I kill a man. I’m not a belligerent, trigger-happy vigilante who shoots a jogger in my neighborhood. But an ordinary white woman, frustrated by quarantine that’s kept my dog housebound, embarrassed and alarmed and angry by a strange man filming me — I saw myself in Amy Cooper.

She says she isn’t a racist. I seriously doubt she’d get in a truck with a gun and track down a black jogger. In fact, I thought it was interesting that in the video, she uses the term “African American,” not even “black.” In everyday life, Amy Cooper probably isn’t racist.

But she didn’t like it when someone pointed out that she wasn’t following the rules. In fact, she took great offense to it, to the point that she was willing to lie to the authorities about being threatened. And while Amy Cooper might not personally be a racist, she knew how to leverage a racist system against Christian.

She says — twice — “I’m going to call the police and tell them that an African American man is threatening me.”

It’s not even so much that she identified him as African American. That’s necessary in some contexts: “He threatened me. He’s African American, about 35, clean-shaven, wearing a blue shirt.”

But no, she was using his race as a weapon against him. She knew that by saying an “African American man” was threatening her, she had ratcheted up the alarm level. The confrontation was no longer between two people; it became a scared white woman vs. an angry black man. And history can tell you how that story usually turns out.

I doubt Amy wanted Christian arrested, and I doubt she revels in the idea of injustice. She was just angry, affronted, and wanted to punish him for making her uncomfortable. She reached for the closest and easiest way to do that — a little lie, a little reminder of his vulnerability, and Christian would regret that he ever approached her and her dog.

So yeah. I see myself in Amy Cooper, caught publicly behaving in a way she’s not really proud of. Like Amy, I’m not a racist. But this entire incident highlighted to me that there’s more to racism than me. There’s an entire power system that I can draw on as a white woman. That’s the racism that oppresses and kills black people, while exonerating and benefiting white people.

And that system is too big for me to dismantle. In fact, I’m not even sure how to identify what needs to change. I might even be reluctant to change it because it would impact the comfortable life I’m used to. That’s a slow, difficult revelation, an ongoing conversation I have with God and myself.

But I can see what five years ago I didn’t believe actually existed: that I can punish a person for being black and making me uncomfortable.

Christian Cooper, thanks for your poise and civility — and presence of mind to capture an encounter for the rest of us to see and understand. Amy Cooper, I hope this life disaster becomes something redemptive in your life. I’ve learned from it. Let’s both become better people.

Tragically Current

It takes a long time for a story to get from seed-of-inspiration to bloom-of-book. I’m always worried that by the time I finish, my chosen subject will be outdated and I’ll have wasted two to three years of my life.

And in the case of my current novel, I didn’t even set out to write a book. I wanted to write a short story about two present-day women who discover an old quilt, and each thinks it belongs to her grandmother.

For diversity’s sake, I decided that one of the women would be black. Instantly, my story tangled up with complications.

There was no way I could write a story about their grandmothers — a white woman and a black woman in the 1960s — without taking race into account. No story would be simple. I could always say that the two women had crossed racial lines and became good friends; but that came with its own problems. Not necessarily because they wouldn’t want to, but because existing society had ways of punishing people who tried to cross that line — violence for blacks, social ostracism for whites.

And then I realized how recently that society had existed. It was within living memory. I myself was born in the late 70s when the great Civil Rights battles were still raging. I was thirteen years old before I realized that it wasn’t morally wrong for a white person to marry a black person. I was stunned at how we white people treat this heavy history as long past, when I now could see how it still oozes like toxic waste in our culture even today.

I pondered my newly-complicated story and was faced with two options:

  1. Embrace the challenge, face the wrongs and injustices that my people perpetrated, and commit myself to honest research about what life was then, and how it affects life now.
  2. Change the black character back to a white one.

I’ve spent two and a half years writing — and being — a “friendly white girl” who has to come to terms with the existence and effects of racism. I have nothing new to add to the black voices who have spoken up about their realities. But, it turns out, I have a lot to say to white people, especially Christians, who consistently downplay, deny, or vilify those who bring up this “old history” or “won’t move on.” I have, in fact, a whole novel.

And just in case I wondered if the subject was passe… Two months ago, in Georgia, an unarmed black man was killed by two white men. According to available evidence, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when accosted by a father-and-son duo who say they thought he was responsible for recent burglaries in the area. It’s unclear exactly what happened, or whether their suspicions were justified, or really anything except that Arbery was shot. That’s because, until now, no arrests had been made, and no investigation had been launched.

It’s that last part that rips the wound wide. It’s part of a pattern that was pieced together a hundred and fifty years ago and is still intact today, even if (thank God) we’re tearing at the seams now. These men weren’t immediately arrested and investigated because they had connections and friends among authorities. That’s an old, tired story. It was true for my fictional grandmothers in the 60s, and it’s apparently still true now.

In all honesty, I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed, nor do I really know what it’s like to actively oppress. But I thought, institutional racism is kind of like being in an abusive family. What would be like to be the victim of blatant abuse, but have the rest of the family downplay, deny, or vilify me for speaking up?

And then I realized that, against the backdrop of that quilt of mysterious origins, I had my story and my protagonist.

I’m just sorry that the concept isn’t outdated by now.