In “How To Be an Antiracist,” Ibram X. Kendi tells us that the heartbeat of racism has always been denial. The sound of that heartbeat has always been “I’m. Not. Racist.” I was reminded of these words in the aftermath of Amy Cooper’s now-notorious 911 call in response to a Black bird-watcher, Christian Cooper, asking her to leash her dog. In her statement to CNN following the incident, some of the first words out of Amy Cooper’s mouth were, “I am not racist.”
No, Amy, you are racist, and so am I. It is rare for anyone to grow up in the United States — where racism and white supremacy are in the air we breathe and the water we drink — and not be racist. We have seen this anti-Blackness manifest over the decades in social science experiments. In the classic doll test conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, both white and Black children preferred white dolls. Among the millions of participants in Project Implicit, almost 70% associate Black faces with negative words such as “bad” and “nasty.”
In an interview on NPR, Christian Cooper said, “Now, should she be defined by that … couple-of-seconds moment? I can’t answer that. I think that’s really up to her and what she does going forward.” Christian Cooper’s words should resonate far beyond Amy Cooper; it is up to all of us what we decide what we do going forward.
The first step on this journey is different for everyone. For me, it came gradually — with the help of friends, mentors and students who took the time to share their lived experience with me. Immersing myself in anti-racist books, movies and podcasts has also been key. For many white progressives in this moment, it is the video of George Floyd’s death that will finally galvanize us to move from denial to introspection to action.
For both the video of Amy Cooper’s weaponized 911 call and that of Floyd’s killing to go viral in the same week forces us to connect these dots: When we call the police, Black people die. Andre Henry writes, “We must never forget Emmett Till was lynched because a white woman claimed he flirted with her, or that Black Wall Street was bombed because a white woman said a Black man frightened her.” Similar stories have been told about hundreds, if not thousands, of lynchings in the Deep South during the post-Reconstruction era.
Acknowledging this truth, internalizing it and feeling its injustice is the first step on the journey toward becoming an anti-racist. Paraphrasing from Kendi’s talk at UC Berkeley in 2019, being racist is not a tattoo. The best thing you can do is speak the truth and confront your own feelings — to say, “I recognize that I was being racist at that moment. At the same time, I am working to be accountable for my actions. I aspire to become an anti-racist.”
Progressive white women especially must acknowledge our complicity in the loss of Black lives. Unless we are actively engaged in actions to stop state-sanctioned violence, we are all Karens. We are all Amy Coopers. We are all Carolyn Bryant Donhams. We are all responsible for Christian Cooper’s inability to watch birds in Central Park without carefully planning his outings in case he encounters one of us.
Our collective denial of our implicit and explicit racism has deadly consequences. The notion that my actions could lead to murder fills me with terror. Yet murder is just the most egregious and well-publicized example of the othering and suspicion that impinges on Black lives in so many other ways and with much greater frequency. We can and must do better. We must read. We must watch. We must listen. We must donate. We must support reparations. We must vote. We must join white ally movements. We must create alternatives to calling the police.
If we are parents, we must teach our children to be anti-racists. Whether we are speaking out against racism within our communities, supporting community bailout and bond funds, sewing masks for protesters or joining protests in the streets, we must take action. If we are not standing up for racial justice, we are a part of the problem. White women linking arms in Louisville to form a human shield between police and Black protestors is what true solidarity looks like. We must support the struggle against police brutality now.
I believe we have the capacity to change as individuals and that we can heal from racism. But the first step on this journey is facing the truth about ourselves. We cannot fight against racism until we first acknowledge the racism within each of us.
Erika Weissinger, Ph.D., teaches at the Goldman School of Public Policy.