Amy Cooper and a History of White Women and Race in America

by Michele Dumont

Lawn sign, white text on black background, that says “White Supremacy is Terrorism” in all caps.

Watching the video of the interaction between Amy Cooper, a white woman, and Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man, in Central Park was extremely upsetting to me. After Christian Cooper repeatedly asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog in an area where dogs were not permitted off-leash, he called out to the dog, offered treats, and started recording the encounter. Ms. Cooper then grabbed her dog violently by the collar and told Mr. Cooper she was calling the police and would tell them, “there is an African-American man threatening my life.”

As a white woman, I recognized this interaction immediately as part of a long history of white women weaponizing their whiteness against Black men. This woman was breaking the law, but instead of taking responsibility for her actions when she was called out on her behavior, she chose to call the police on a Black man — an act that too often ends in the death of an innocent human being.

What Ms. Cooper did re-enacts the role of white women in the white supremacy culture of the United States. She, like many before her, embodied the white victim archetype that women use to elicit the violent extinction of Black men. Almost as soon as she saw Christian Cooper, she threatened to call the police, an action that could have ended in the death of this man who was quietly bird watching. Calling the police on a Black man, even for the most benign actions, often means death for him. In fact, if a white woman calls the police and says a Black man is endangering or threatening her life, it is almost certain that the police will arrive with guns blazing. Christian could have so easily ended up dead. Let me repeat that:

Christian could have ended up dead.

The other archetypal act she committed during her encounter with Christian was, to put it bluntly, telling an outright lie about her safety. On the phone with the police operator, she raises her voice to a panicked tone. We all know who the police will believe. Christian wouldn’t have had a chance against her, except that he was filming her. She’s playing the role of the “fragile white woman” who deserves the protection of the state from Black men. She uses her supposed fragility as a weapon, one that white society has taught her to wield. She hopes this weapon will assert power for her. But, in fact, the very concept of coupling power with fragility is catastrophically disempowering to everyone except white men. White fragility infantilizes white women and makes us believe we need white men to protect us; when we act this way, we give up our own agency to white men and expose innocent Black men to mortal danger.

In the Jim Crow era, white men often lynched Black men and boys under the false pretense of “protecting white women.” Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 after being accused of sexually harassing Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was married to one of the men who killed Till. Donham admitted in 2007 that the Black teen never verbally or physically abused her.

Amy, like many of us, is deeply infected with racism — an ongoing pandemic in our society and world. White supremacy culture teaches fear of Black people, and white female fear of Black men. It taught Amy to perceive a Black man’s mere existence as a threat to her power, and compelled her to lie to stop Christian from going about his bird watching when he asked her to leash her dog.

We need to take solid action to dismantle these diseased systems that favor white fragility, that criminalize Blackness, and create unnecessary fears and hostilities between people. Today, I, along with the women of White People 4 Black Lives, aim this statement at other white women. This is our responsibility. We need to take active steps to make sure we never do anything like this again.

This article is written by White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL). WP4BL is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice. WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles. Visit www.awarela.org and follow us @wp4bl.

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Rosie F

Rosie F

Writer/contributor forWP4BL, the Los Angeles chapter of SURJ