"I am threatened by a man in the Ramble … going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life."
Most of us are familiar now with Amy Cooper’s cellphone call to police after Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher, reminded her that the rules required her to keep her dog on a leash in Central Park. I was not shocked at all by the video of her actions toward a calm, collected and measured person of color responding to a person threatening to harm them. His adept read into her profoundly disturbing behavior led him to realize that he must video the interaction; his life could even be in danger by not doing so. Ms. Cooper demonstrated in plain sight a fabricated claim of an attack, derived from well-worn deficit-oriented and depraved narrative of Black men in America.
Ms. Cooper become enraged after Mr. Cooper failed to "listen" to her. When he did not comply, she went off and called the police, knowing that, as a white woman in a park with a person of color, the police would probably blame and potentially harm that man. Similarly, in my experience as a Latinx man and those of other Black academics I know, some non-Black colleagues will process listening as agreeing, with the expectation that we will comply.
Indeed, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Amy Cooper’s actions are exceptional. Our society continues to buy in to this power narrative that allows a white person to falsely accuse a Black/brown person without any punitive action. I see this all the time in academe. Many people of color on campuses across our country understand this type of situation all too well, whether they are students dealing with campus security, staff members working with a senior administrator or a junior faculty member of color in the department. We often work with people operating outside the lines of fair disagreements, and yet colleges are too frequently more than willing to support those individuals or simply ignore the situation. We are in harm's way when white fragility meets a difference of opinion, and thus audio/video recording is sometimes the only option.
In academe, the charge is too often dropped and the incident swept under the rug, allowing the white colleague to disrupt someone’s life again in any way they choose. How can we hold out until colleges take Amy Cooper's actions seriously and decide to hold her accountable? What can we, as academics, learn from Christian Cooper that can keep us safe?
Standing Your Ground
Nowhere in America is an individual with delicate sensibilities coddled and reinforced for their twin traits of fragility and inflexibility as much as they are in academe. As their professors, we teach many students who are emerging as adults, and we work with many colleagues who struggle with social and problem-solving skills. We cloister ourselves in our offices for thousands of hours writing, with very little feedback until we publish. Only then do we get a few pages of critical feedback that can feel like an intellectual assault. Our daily work is in extremes, and a few people develop hair-like triggers from this experience and the rest of the department will pay for it.
When a new colleague without power and of a marginalized group comes along, the dysfunctional thoughts of those people manifest themselves into racism, discrimination and a new version of white power colonialism. Such a white person will demand that you listen to them and then expect that you will obey. Listening is equivalent to doing. It is then a choice for you to do their bidding and avoid immediate harm or to stand your ground and perhaps face unwarranted backlash.
Based on my own experiences as a Latinx man and those of my Black colleagues, my suggestion for your future mental health and productivity is to do the latter. I recommend that you:
Stay calm, and use your phone to document. You need to rebalance the scale with irrefutable facts when a single white truth seems to outweigh the collective truths of all minoritized people on the campus. Thus, I generally give people multiple opportunities before I begin recording all conversations with them. (Rhode Island as a one-party-consent state allows for that in order to serve justice and increase transparency.) That has given me space and grace to allow the individuals to show me who they are in various situations, so I don’t unfairly conclude they are trying to harm me. If they demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that they are slight derivations of Amy Cooper or not (because I have also found that, after going through this process of vetting, so many at my college are not), I can use the documentation to stop the behavior.
I’ve ultimately deleted many of the audio files, but the important ones remain there to protect me in much the same way Christian Cooper’s video helped him present the true facts of the incident. I may not have been surprised, but I felt his fear, pain and resilience to stand his ground calmly.
Get ahead of the conversation. It is the utmost importance to acknowledge what people who act like Amy Cooper are saying and not enable them. I often restate their words and then immediately disagree with them and say why. When they come back with more, I reiterate that we disagree, and that it is healthy. I might then ask why they are saying what they are saying. That can be a difficult question for the other person to answer because, at the core, it is often about white privilege and fragility; it is simply because they said so. You do not need to go further than this. Let their words hang and sound as foolish as a person who is violating park rules, claiming that a Black man has threatened them.
Find a group that cares about you as a person at your institution. I am part of a team that founded Providence College's chapter of the Coalition Against Racism, is an academic support group for any minoritized individual on our campus. We support each other and speak truth to power -- real truth, with actual and unvarnished facts. We do this calmly and with care for everyone involved. The ratio of good-faith direct negotiations with administration to organized public events is 20 to one, yet still, our work is needed to help the college make structural changes. Especially if you find yourself on a campus where fragility and status quo are more important than equity and safety, you should consider starting your own support group to protect yourself.
In Central Park that day, Amy Cooper pulled the ultimate race card: that, as a white woman, she was in perceived danger from a Black man. She knew full well that the police would come to her aid. May every person of color take what happened to Christian Cooper seriously until our college and university communities take our safety as seriously as they do the allegations of an Amy Cooper. Unlike some academics, she at least apologized for what she did -- which is the first step in change. Those of us who work in higher education can learn a lot from the story of the two Coopers, as we should all be better than that.