Social media erupted on Monday after Amy Cooper, a white woman, was caught on tape in Central Park falsely accusing an innocent Black man of threatening her while on a 911 call. The video quickly went viral and hashtags such as #KarenStrikesAgain flooded Twitter. But, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for white women to abuse their racial privilege, even at the risk of Black lives.
Some might argue that incidents like this are reflective of white women becoming the new face of white male privilege, but sadly, what happened on Monday is merely history repeating itself. As it turns out, Amy Cooper’s fervent pleas for help were not caused by a true threat to her safety. She was insulted that a Black man who was out for a leisure day of birdwatching dared to ask that she leash her dog, which by the way, is a requirement of the park.
Similar videos have gone viral showcasing white women doing everything from spitting at grocery store employees to kicking and sitting on people’s cars over parking spaces. We even watched on video as a white woman called the police on a Black child for selling water without a permit. While watching these videos, in most cases, people shake their heads in disgust and go on about their day. But on the heels of the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the Amy Cooper incident cut like a knife and people demanded justice. Calling the police on a Black man could be a death sentence. Had the incident not been captured on video we might be discussing a very different outcome.
This is not to suggest that all white women behave as Cooper and others, but enough do and we must have a conversation about not only these behaviors, but their driving force – racial privilege. The system of racial privilege is the white-dominated norm in our society, that white people occupy positions of power over people of color.
When discussing racial privilege, white male privilege is typically the focus, due to white men benefiting from being both male and white. White male privilege is problematic, and the oppression of women is still very much alive and well and should be dismantled. But make no mistake about it, white women eat hearty off the plate of white privilege and white supremacy, and they’ve been doing so for centuries.
“Karen” didn’t just enter the room
Dating as far back as the global colonial project beginning in the late 1800s, when white male settlers pillaged and colonized their way to the “Freeland,” white women were not spectators. Although they were subordinate to white men, they were instrumental in supporting the colonization of indigenous people. But history would have us to believe that white women have experienced the same oppression as the populations they helped to colonize, and that’s simply untrue.
The same narrative can also be seen in traces of white feminism, in which white women adopt anti-racist perspectives and denounce white male supremacy to further distance themselves from the power that they benefit from by placing full culpability onto white men. Meanwhile, they co-opt the struggle of Blacks to mobilize their agenda. As an advocate for women’s rights, I fully support equality for women. But we must be careful not to conflate the structural oppression that white women face with the oppression that Blacks experience. This is especially true for Black women.
The many faces of white female privilege
There is a well-documented history of white women using their racial privilege and sexuality to oppress Black men. Most notably is the heart-wrenching story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who in 1955 was brutally murder by two white men after being accused of grabbing a white woman in a store, who decades later admitted that she lied about Till physically touching her.
We don’t have to reach as far back as Emmett Till, though. In 2018, Nikki Yovino lied to police about being raped by two Black Sacred Heart University football players to get the attention of a classmate she was romantically interested in. Also in 2018, a white woman called the police on a 9-year-old Black boy accusing him of groping her after his backpack brushed against her backside.
Ironically, one of the current center stones of white feminism is the #metoo movement, yet it fails to acknowledge how white women have historically — and currently, used their sexuality to oppress Black men. Again, I’m a strong proponent of women’s rights and believe that sexual assault and harassment in any form is unacceptable, but that does not exonerate white women or the movement from honest and fair analysis. White female privilege also portrays white women as victims and maintains the illusion of their innocence.
In 2015, Susan Smith accused a Black man of stealing her car and kidnapping her two children. She later admitted to killing them herself. Similarly, in 2016 Leiha Ann-Sue Artman lied and said that four Black men raped and kidnapped her with the hope that her boyfriend would pay a ransom for her. These are extreme examples, but they further illustrate the comfort that many white women feel in using victimization as a tool, even at the cost of Black lives.
It’s bigger than ‘Karen’
As I step down from my high horse, let me reference a saying that my father always used to quote, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” This is not to exonerate white women who choose to abuse their racial privilege, but we must be clear about the root of white privilege and white supremacy. We are inundated with negative mediated images and tropes of Blacks. The jezebel, sapphire, angry Black woman and the hyper-masculine, over-sexed, dangerous, and intellectually inferior Black man.
We constantly see these portrayals in film, television, and social media. They perpetuate a narrative that not only maintains racist and oppressive stereotypes about blacks but they also reduce the value of our lives to that of the footstool of white America. We are the country’s simultaneous ultimate good time and scapegoat. This makes it easier for some white women to falsely accuse Black men of just about anything without a second thought. When we see white women lash out because they feel uncomfortable, it’s because they’re the center of beauty and womanhood; thus, all female experiences revolve around their existence. Consequently, some get a case of the big head and cut up if someone dares to question or inconvenience them.
White female privilege is nothing new and is just as dangerous today as it was in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered. I used to get frustrated when I would see viral “Karen” videos because I feared they would encourage similar behavior. But this issue is much deeper than viral videos. However, taped footage of these entitled racist rants does help shine a much-needed light on racial privilege and abuses of power. We must all, regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender, continue to tirelessly speak out against acts of injustice. Especially those who benefit from racial privilege. Black lives depend on it.
Maia Niguel Hoskin, Ph.D. is a College Professor, Forbes Contributor, Race Scholar, Keynote Speaker, and Culture Curator. Follow her on Twitter @MaiaNHoskin.
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