There’s a blistering editorial in the New York Times about Amy Cooper, the white woman who was asked by a black birdwatcher to put her dog on a lead in the park. She responded by threatening to call the police and tell them that an African-American man was threatening her life – a potentially lethal lie in a country where so many black men and boys have been murdered by the police.
She may believe these statements to be true. But even here she betrays her sense of white superiority; even if she didn’t intend to physically hurt him, she certainly was letting him know she had the power to do so and was attempting to corner him into submission.
…Ms. Cooper is not an exceptional example of racism but the latest in a long line of damsels who leverage racial power by dominating people of color only to pivot to the role of the helpless victim.
In America, Black women have a term for this: Karen. A Karen is a white woman who uses her whiteness and the privilege that comes with it to cause trouble for black people; she demands to call the manager in the hope of getting a key worker fired, or calls the police pretending a black man is threatening her.
Here in the UK, we like to think that we’re better than the Americans. And it’s true that while we have our own problems with racism – right now black people are more likely to be stopped for suspicion of breaking lockdown rules, for example; there are no end of examples of people of colour suffering abuse of authority – Amy Cooper’s threat wouldn’t have been quite so frightening if she were a Glaswegian rather than a New Yorker, because our police officers are less likely to be heavily armed racists who shoot first and think later.
But the threat would still be effective, because there would still be a presumption on the part of the authorities that she was telling the truth: as a white, cisgender, well-spoken, well-educated middle-class woman with a respectable job many people in authority will respond to her in a different way than to people who don’t tick some or all of those boxes. And some people try to use that power differential to their advantage: the Karens of the world, who are not exclusive to the US.
Something I found interesting about the online reaction to the Amy Cooper story here in the UK was people’s surprise that Cooper isn’t right-wing. But this isn’t about which side of the political spectrum you sit on. It’s about power, power that enables you to protect your personal position even if it means harming others; power that enables you to call on the police or other authorities to deal with anyone who challenges, inconveniences or criticises you. It’s about the privilege you have in society and your willingness to use it as a weapon against those less powerful than you.