The symbolism is almost too much to bear. The antagonist stares down the barrel of the camera, removing her surgical face mask at the same moment she takes off her figurative mask and offers the audience a glimpse into what lies beneath. The woman, Amy Cooper, points her finger at the stranger behind the camera, Christian Cooper, to demand that he stop filming her. When he refuses, she threatens to call the police and then immediately acts on her threat.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she told him, clutching her phone.
The viral video of this tense interaction between a white woman walking her dog and a black man bird watching in Central Park (he had asked her to leash her dog, in accordance with rules for that area of the park) has become the latest flash point, not only of discussions of racism and police brutality against black men, but also of the pivotal role played by white women.
The damsel-in-distress archetype probably conjures up images of delicate maidens and chivalrous gentlemen. That is precisely what it is designed to do — for white people. To people of color, and especially African-Americans who have borne the brunt of her power in the United States, the image is very different. The damsel in distress is an illusion of innocence that deflects and denies the racial crimes of white society.
That loaded threat issued by Ms. Cooper has no weight unless the person being threatened is as aware of the stakes as the person issuing it. Ms. Cooper’s words leaned into the history of lynching black men and boys on the pretext of protecting white women. Yet, in subsequent media interviews, she claimed she was acting out of fear, is “not a racist” and “did not mean to harm that man in any way.” 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.
Moreover, feeling afraid and being in danger are not necessarily the same thing. Historically speaking, when white people are afraid it is usually people of color who get hurt.
Contrary to myths of black rapist hordes preying on innocent white damsels, it was the sexual degradation of enslaved and colonized women that was a defining feature of settler colonialism. European colonizers, and then American slave owners, built their societies not only on lands stolen from Indigenous populations, not only through capitalist exploitation of forced labor, but also on the abused bodies of black, Indigenous and brown women.
“Slavery is terrible for men but it is much more terrible for women,” declared Harriet Jacobs, formerly enslaved, in her autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861. A Southern plantation mistress, Mary Chestnut, complained in her diary, “Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines; and the mulattos one sees in every family partly resemble the white children.” In their book “Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America,” published in 1988, the historians John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman argue that “the rape of the female slave was the most common form of interracial sex in the slavery era.”
This tapestry of testimonials reveals a social fabric held together not only by the sexual abuse of black women but also by the collective projection of blame back onto the victims. White society completed its self-exoneration by manufacturing both the specter of the black (and then brown) male rapist who couldn’t contain his lust for the white woman, and the virtuous damsel who must be shielded from him at all costs.
Wherever European men colonized, the damsel followed. In Australia, she emerged in Eliza Fraser, who in 1836 was shipwrecked off the east coast and rescued by the Indigenous Butchulla people on K’gari Island. Upon returning to white society she claimed to have been kidnapped and abused. Although her story was strongly disputed by fellow survivors, colonial authorities used it as one of their justifications for the massacre and dispossession of the traditional owners. By the end of the 19th century, the population had dwindled to 117 from more than 2,000. K’gari, meaning “paradise,” was renamed Fraser Island.
Ms. Cooper has since been fired from her job and, following an outcry at the way in which she yanked her thrashing and yelping cocker spaniel by the collar, has surrendered her dog. Though it is important that white people face repercussions for jeopardizing people of color’s safety, we should be wary of individualizing her behavior by punishing her to the extent that she is deemed an outlier. Doing so obscures the racialized social context in which this incident occurred.
Her threats to Mr. Cooper have significance in a society that regards black men as persistent threats to white women. They are a brutal reminder that whatever the actual substance of their dispute, she knew that a single cry for help could bring down the weight of white supremacy on his body.
This is what we talk about when we talk about the violence of white women’s tears.
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. To African-Americans who are undoubtedly thinking of all the “hysterical” phone calls made to the police that were never filmed, I can only offer these words of support: Yes, this footage is painful evidence of racial violence that has never subsided. But it could, perhaps, be a turning point.
In this instance at least, when white entitlement faced a refusal to submit to dehumanization and furiously attempted to reassert its dominance, it failed spectacularly.
Source: NY times