Who needs to change? Look in the mirror

Opinion: Columns

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Elizabeth Freeland

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The story of Amy Cooper calling the cops on Christian Cooper in Central Park has been overshadowed by the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests. Mayor Lightfoot imposed a curfew and volunteers are downtown cleaning up Michigan Avenue. 

In Oak Park, we like to see ourselves as progressive, open-minded, inclusive, and certainly not racist. As a community, we may realize, or have been pushed to realize, that we have shortcomings, places where "things need to be fixed," that we are hardly a community devoid of racism. But in my discussions with white people, so often it is somehow someone else who is in the wrong, who needs to change. It's rarely "me." 

I have no doubt than many white women in Oak Park read about Amy Cooper and thought, "How terrible. These racist people, these white women, need to be stopped." I wonder, how many of them reflected on whether or not they would do something similar? 

Last Fall, I was walking home from the el and a white woman called out to me. She wanted me to call the police on some kids she thought were stealing a bike. Admittedly, lots of bikes get stolen in Oak Park, and in broad daylight at the el station (one of my family's included). But I was also very aware that this could be a situation that was being blown out of proportion. I told her I did have a phone and would check it out. Honestly, I didn't want to say no and then just have her ask someone else. 

I did walk back around the corner to the bikes. There was a group of three or four black teens standing around a bike and talking among themselves in a casual way while one of them appeared to be unlocking a bike. Nothing at all looked suspicious to me, not even enough to warrant me going over for a closer look. 

I don't know what this woman saw. Would she have responded differently if the kids had been white? They looked like teens just out of school, on their way home or to the library. Why not just go over and talk to them, ask if they needed help with their bike? 

There are many alternatives to calling the police on a group of chatting teens with a bike. I'm not telling this story to point a finger, yet again, in another direction. The point is not to say, "See? This happens in Oak Park too, but it wasn't me. It was that other white woman over there." 

I have never called the cops on anyone. But about a year ago, I was downtown waiting for the el when a black man, about my age, passed by very near to me. I moved my bag aside and stepped back a little. He gave a little laugh as he continued on, and it seemed clear to me that for him this was yet another white woman who was sure he was going to steal something from her. 

Was I? I don't know. I can tell myself that I would have done that for anyone passing by that closely. It is true that, as a woman, I am very aware of my surroundings any time I am alone and among lots of strangers. I keep an eye on the white frat boys, too. 

But if I am truthful, I was also taught to be afraid of black men. Not overtly, but in little ways that are part of the white culture I grew up in. So in truth, I would guess that at least part of my reaction to this man was simply because he was black. And even if it was not, I am now very aware of how black men have been used, historically and today, by white women. It is quite likely that this man interpreted my action as racist no matter what was going through my head. 

I have spent time over the past years working to change my internalized racism and to behave differently, proactively, especially around black men. It's not enough that my behavior may be neutral to me. If I care about changing the dynamics of racism, I need to be aware of the historical (and current!) context of my behavior. I need to make sure my impact is aligned with my intention. 

While I can't imagine the white women I know acting on ingrained racist culture in the way that Amy Cooper did, we are a part of, and have absorbed, the racist myths that surround us. 

The Amy Coopers of the world don't just live among us, they are us — even in Oak Park. As white women (and men) we need to acknowledge this, so that we can do something about it.

Elizabeth Freeland is an Oak Park resident.

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