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Breaking down Karen (who seems to be having a breakdown)

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

by Leonie Smith

The "Karen meme" is used to describe racist acts done by white women.

I am a coach and a workshop developer interested in working with individuals and groups to reduce harm. My primary focus in this work, the desired outcome that is with me when I think about creating an offering or that shapes my stance as a coach, is that people of colour and other marginalised folks experience less harm as they encounter systems of oppression.

So I was intrigued when a friend of mine, who is a religious educator, shared a document with me that essentially uses logic to support people in their decision-making about calling the police. The document, Alternatives to Calling the Police was put out by Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ), DC. It outlines steps to ask yourself before calling the police.

Steps to Ask Yourself

  1. Is this merely an inconvenience to me? > Can I put up with this and be okay?

  2. No, I need to respond > Can I handle this on my own, is this something I could try to talk-out with the person?

  3. No, I need back-up > Is there a friend, neighbor, or someone whom I could call to help me?

  4. No, I need a professional > Can we use mediation to talk through what’s happening or is there an emergency response hotline I could call?

  5. No > If I call the police do I understand how involving the police could impact me and the other person? If police are present do I know what to do?

Everything about the document is designed to be accessible. There are only five steps. There is an infographic. The language is simple. I imagine that it was designed to support people newly awakened to the dangers of calling the police on Black people and other marginalised folks.

But accessible is not the same as doable. Answering the straight-forward questions in this document requires a more sound mind than seems to be available to many people who call the police on people of colour. My friend and I started to discuss how useful this document would have been to the Amy Coopers of the world. Amy Cooper is the subject of a viral video in which she threatens to call the police on an African American man who asked her to leash her dog. Despite her accomplishments in life, her education, and intelligence, it is obvious that she had little to no access to her rational brain.

There has been a lot of discussion about the impact of her actions. My curiosity goes beyond interpretations of Amy Cooper's behaviour. It is clear to me that Amy Cooper was a person who believed herself to be in distress and under threat by Christian Cooper. It is also clear to me that Amy Cooper was never under threat It is also clear that that gap between what is real and what is imagined had the potential to generate dire consequences. It is fine and, in my opinion fair, to label Amy Cooper's behaviour as racist. And it is clear that there was so much more going on for Amy Cooper. It is important to understand her actions, not to privilege her experience; but in acknowledgement of her role as the main actor who can create harm in this incident.

Looking at this situation and similar incidents through a systemic lens suggests that white supremacist thinking, anti-blackness, and easy access to abusing power deeply affects people from the dominant culture. It especially affects how some white women react in habituated and expected ways when they encounter black male bodies.

Would Amy Cooper have been capable of using these five steps to assess her need for police intervention?

What was happening to Amy Cooper's brain and body while she was living in her experience of being threatened?

Does the brain go 'offline' in those moments?

If so, what can be done to intervene and disrupt those moments by Amy Cooper? By Christian Cooper? By a bystander?

That is the formation of my inquiry. I wanted to ask someone who would know. On July 10, we will be sharing a recorded conversation between me, Sarah Peyton, neuroscience educator and author of Your Resonant Self and Mika Maniwa, who is interested in the trauma of racialization.

Our intention is to do an almost frame-by-frame exploration of what was happening for Amy Cooper; to add another layer to the current conversation -- understanding how reason can be hijacked because of the impact of white supremacist culture and how other systemic oppressive thinking lives in us. By knowing this, can we generate interventions that could support a better outcome? Are there interventions that Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper, or a bystander can engage that incorporates this lens?

On July 10th, we will be releasing a recording of that conversation. I hope our own conversation stimulates a rich discussion and exploration and informs how we can contribute to the international anti-racist movement.

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