Over Memorial Day weekend, a video depicting an act of casual and cruel racism circulated widely on Twitter. In the video, an aggrieved white woman confronts the man holding the camera, dragging a cocker spaniel by the collar in one hand as she advances. “I’m asking you to stop,” she says. “I’m calling the police. I’m telling them there is an African-American man threatening my life.” The interaction goes on for a minute or so, and thankfully never escalates. Her voice grows sharp as her unfounded panic increases: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”
The confrontation ends once the woman clips the leash to her dog’s collar, which was all the man wanted. In the face of what could’ve been a life-threatening altercation, the man remains calm.
Since the video’s spread the woman in question, Amy Cooper, has been the subject of intense public scrutiny, and the facts of her past have been dredged up as a means of explaining her behavior. She issued a mealy-mouthed public apology that attempted to grapple with her own privilege as well as her latent racism: “When I think about the police, I’m such a blessed person,” she told NBC 4 New York. “I’ve come to realize especially today that I think of [the police] as a protection agency, and unfortunately, this has caused me to realize that there are so many people in this country that don’t have that luxury.” Following the incident, the dog, Henry, was briefly returned to the rescue organization Cooper had adopted it from. Cooper also lost her job at investment firm Franklin Templeton. Christian Cooper (no relation), the man who was her target, stated quite plainly in an interview with the New York Times that the encounter itself wasn’t the problem, it simply illustrated the racist impulse that Amy Cooper, and many like her, operate from.
“It’s not about her,” he told the Times. “What she did was tap into a deep vein of racial bias.”
Christian Cooper is correct. The video perfectly captured the way white women can manifest a threat to their safety as a weapon, even if they are not actively being harmed. The video serves as a document of this insidious, pernicious, and common tendency, and provides a jumping off point for frank discussions about race. Amy Cooper’s actions are neither unique or special and there is little to learn from probing further into her background. However, it is clear that this is what Sarah Maslin Nir at the New York Times was trying to do in a piece published June 14. Billed as the “inside story of the black birder and the white woman who called the police on him,” Maslin Nir tries to shed further light on how Cooper’s temper tantrum came to be, and in the process, gives more space to Amy Cooper, digging into her background and personal life as a means of attempting to teach a lesson about the role her privilege played in the incident.
The piece functions as a write-around profile of Amy Cooper–an attempt to paint her as misunderstood. It includes some of the more sordid details of her life, first reported on by the New York Post, including a salacious tidbit about how she reportedly “slammed” Martin Priest, a former paramour, for voting for Obama, and also later filed a lawsuit against Priest, alleging that she had lent him $65,000 with the understanding that he would leave his wife for her. The Post’s writeup of these rumors about Cooper are gossipy and incendiary, but the Times gives Cooper’s life more nuanced consideration. Cooper is from Canada originally, neighbors saw her as “bizarre” with a “sense of entitlement.” An incident between Cooper and a doorman in her building is described thusly:
Alison Faircloth, 37, a neighbor and dog owner, recalled that last winter, she came upon Ms. Cooper on the verge of tears outside the building’s lobby. A doorman had cursed at her for no reason, Ms. Cooper told her. Ms. Cooper vowed to get the doorman fired, Ms. Faircloth said.
But when Ms. Faircloth asked the doorman what had happened, he told her that Ms. Cooper had complained about a broken elevator, then cursed at him after she barged into a security booth and had to be removed by a guard.
“There’s always a narrative from her about someone who has done her wrong,” Ms. Faircloth said.
This sense of Cooper, which Maslin Nir gathered from casual observers, isn’t quite the “troubled past” narrative the Times and other publications often use to explain the crimes of white men like Dylan Roof or Daniel Holtzclaw, but it portrays Cooper as an outlier. Highlighting her entitlement is a stab at relatability, an unintentional move to garner some sort of sympathy for a woman who very clearly acted out of a racist impulse and upended her own life at no one else’s fault. It also separates her from the other, better women who would clearly never threaten such violence. Painting Cooper as a woman with unresolved mental health issues negates what she actually did. Much like the 2015 write around of Dylan Roof that ran in the Times, Maslin Nir tries to contextualize Amy Cooper’s reaction by digging through the metaphoric trash to find clues as to why she might have acted the way she did.
But context isn’t necessary to understand that there wasn’t any particularly unique pattern that prompted the events in Central Park. Cooper has been cast as yet another Karen in a sea of Karens who have been the executors of racism in ways that are less overt than their white male counterparts. Lisa Alexander, a white woman in San Francisco, was filmed confronting James Juanillo in front of his own home (she eventually called the cops) is yet another example. In the video, Alexander is tremulous, high on a dizzying combo of entitlement and the protection that white womanhood affords. The claims she makes are spurious; Juanillo is stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in front of the home that he owns, and Alexander, with the self-assuredness of a snake that is about to strike, tells him that she knows the owners, which she clearly does not. According to Juanillo, who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, when the police eventually showed up, they didn’t even bother to get out of the car.
The more nuanced approach taken by both Cooper and Alexander are rooted not just in racist assumptions about black people and but present a prime example of the casual assumptions “good” white people make. Both Cooper and Alexander’s outbursts are genuine, despite what their public apologies might say. Their first instinct was to react with fear and to wield the power they have by essentially pulling the ripcord and showing who they are. Everything anyone needs to know about these women is right there on the tape.