This week, a White woman called the police on a Black man who asked her to put a leash on her dog in Central Park. He’s a Harvard grad, former Marvel comic writer, STEM editor, birding enthusiast, gay rights activist, and a generally handsome guy named Christian Cooper. I don’t want to know any of this about him. But Twitter told me. In an effort to humanize him, to rescue him from non-identity as “the Black Man in a Verbal Altercation with a Karen,” someone unearthed his bio. I understand why they did it. I just don’t think it had the exact effect they expected.
Once the recorded incident of a racist, self-deputized white person goes viral, the parties involved are reduced to archetypes: aggressor and aggrieved. If the aggrieved is the Black person who had the cops called on them, our unwritten social contract of righteous outrage on their behalf asks for their tacit support of whatever outcome happens. We ask no questions about who they are or were before the incident to qualify our anger. Being Black in America is reason enough. We save our scrutiny for the aggressor.
For the most part, anyway.
Sometimes, the inevitable digging and doxxing also passes to the aggrieved party. How else are we to know how very, very innocent and upstanding they are, how undeserving of the racist treatment they received simply while existing as Black? It’s a trap every time. Then we have to remind people, again, that even if the Black person had a background we disapproved of, it wouldn’t merit the cops being called for sitting in a Starbucks. The whole cycle is rather tiresome.
But Christian Cooper’s 24-hour media exposure presents a curious case. The requisite respectability politics reminders went out on schedule, mere minutes after we learned of his resume. That’s when it got weird. After video of him on a birding documentary went viral, people began pointing out how… hot Cooper was. To be 57! And nerdy! And muscular! Okay, I get that thirst happens. I’m still trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a victim of racism become an object of public desire 12 hours later.
But the most disturbing aspect of some of those tweets were the parts where people used Cooper’s hobby, pedigree and appearance to emphasize how non-threatening he was. White women unironically tweeted about how a light-skinned, clean cut, delightfully nerdy, hot gay Black man looking at tweety birds could not possibly be scary to another white woman. Which, of course, is dangerously beside the point. Their utter lack of self-awareness screamed at me like Amy Cooper did to Christian Cooper (no relation).
If we can identify Christian Cooper as undeserving of being Karen’d because he checks all the right “non-threatening” boxes–including the ones we don’t name aloud–that implicitly validates a stereotypical “threatening” appearance in these encounters. And because our societal view of who we consider a threat is irreparably racialized, bestowing him with the title of “non-threatening” isn’t benign. It’s telling.
In Christian Cooper’s video of his run-in with Amy Cooper, the gaze is focused squarely where it should be: on the duplicitous White woman calling the cops to enact violence on a Black man. His off-camera responses are curt and much less revealing than her diatribe. His disembodied voice almost serves as a foil to her physical rage as she nearly strangles her own dog. We see Karen in her inglorious, true colors through an innocent Black man’s lens.
But the very apparatus that allows us to witness her harm exposes Christian Cooper to public scrutiny. He might’ve initially posted the video to his Facebook page seeking affirmation for his feelings about what happened to him. But you could argue he knew the storm could come, as it has for millions of others. Post an enraging video of racist behavior, and you don’t even have to say “Twitter, do your thing.” Justice Twitter obliges without request. A video on social media is a vehicle the victim/original poster (OP) ceases to drive the minute it goes viral. We’re the captains now. No OP can fully predict or control the extent of backlash to racist behavior posted online (ask Natasha Tynes).
So it feels disingenuous to many for Cooper to wonder if the public response to Amy Cooper is “really proportionate,” as he told NPR. Amy Cooper so far has lost her job, her poor breathless dog, and her ability to death-by-cop Black men in Central Park. Christian Cooper also said to NPR, “I’m not sure that her one minute of poor decision-making, bad judgment and, without question, racist response necessarily has to define her completely.” But when people post a clip of a racist interaction, no one needs exhaustive knowledge of the characters involved. Social media users ride for the aggrieved whether victims want it or not, because it could’ve been any of us. Trying to retroactively pump the brakes on a driverless vehicle you set in motion on social media reads as moral grandstanding, as placating the oppressor.
My head spun trying to process this in the span of 24 hours, all the ways Christian Cooper did and did not fit the mold of the “perfect victim.” How counterproductive is our insatiable desire to create one. And again, I understand why that Twitter user sought to put a face, a name, flesh and bones to the titular “Black Man” in the recurrent narrative. Christian Cooper is a person; that matters. But you can’t use respectable factoids to engender sympathy without flattening him into those same “admirable” traits. Our rallying cry must remain the humanity of the aggrieved, or else we reveal our own inhumanity.
Finally, it occurred to me that racist violence forces Black people to exchange their anonymity for individualized public justice. Privacy first disappears the moment a Black person encounters a white person illegitimately acting as or seeking higher authority. Hypervisibility then extends to both the aggressor and the aggrieved once racism goes viral. When you post others, you uncover yourself, too. The exposure invariably burdens marginalized people. I never had to hear the name “Christian Cooper” to believe that an attractive Black, gay birding enthusiast could exist. It saddens me we had to meet him under these circumstances. For me, the curious case of Christian Cooper is that it makes me wish I knew nothing more than this:
He was an innocent Black man nearly robbed of his life by a white person who thought it was worthless.