Amy Cooper went viral this week — and not for a good reason. In a widely shared video, she alters the pitch of her voice to sound in distress and fabricates danger, while calling the police claiming an “African American man” was threatening her life. In reality, the man in question, birdwatcher Christian Cooper, had simply requested she put her dog on a leash as required by Central Park regulations and can be seen backing away to keep his distance from her.

The incident fits into a common theme of online shaming videos catching racist white women calling the police on black people for minor reasons. The shaming has forced Amy Cooper to return her dog to the agency she adopted him from, and she has been fired by her employer.

But while the video’s unique facts have inflamed social media, Cooper’s behavior has a long historical legacy. The video doesn’t just show an entitled white woman invoking threat and involving the police in an incident that could very well have escalated and resulted in violence, perhaps deadly, against Christian Cooper. It also depicts Amy Cooper wrapping herself in the persona of the “damsel in distress,” a figure that offers protection only to white women. It is also a guise that for centuries has been used as an excuse to enact racist violence on black people in the name of white women’s safety.

Though built on white privilege, the protection offered to white women against other groups actually serves anti-feminist goals of infantilizing women and using their safety as justification to enact bigoted violence. In cases where women’s safety cannot be easily weaponized against a black, immigrant or trans person, the figure of the damsel in distress has evoked little societal response, even if a woman is in genuine danger.

The white “damsel in distress” trope has a deadly history in the United States. It has been used to justify racist violence since the formation of colonies in the 17th century when captivity narratives became popular. Captivity narratives exaggerated and fictionalized the details of real kidnappings by Native American groups to make the experience seem more extreme.

One of the most famous and earliest captivity narratives published in the British North American colonies was “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” published six years after Rowlandson had been captured with her children during King Philip’s War in 1676 and held for 11 weeks. Her book was so popular it went through four printings.

Rowlandson’s story captivated the public because it indulged people’s curiosity about Native Americans while reinforcing bigotry and using Christian imagery to describe the ordeal. Captivity narratives like Rowlandson’s provided a justification for violence against Native Americans. The fear that indigenous people would steal wives and daughters away in the middle of the night and do terrible things to them became the grounds for waging war and displacing them from their lands.

Captivity narratives were often written by white women but edited for publication by men. Editors turned the women’s stories into useful propaganda to justify religious superiority, violence against tribes and arguing for more government protection for frontier settlements. The concern over white women’s safety was used to cover the greed for more land. Fears about “barbaric” Native Americans traveled as the frontier moved westward.

While tribes were moved further west, the idea of the damsel in distress was expanding in the South. This narrative adapted to include protecting white women on plantations from potential violence by enslaved black men. Enslaved African men were cast as oversexualized brutes who found white women irresistible. White women and their progeny were seen as guardians of white supremacy and so interracial sex between white women and black men was particularly threatening to the social order.

To ensure white women didn’t engage in sexual relations with black men, enslaved or free, the legal ramifications and social consequences for those relationships were extreme. Additionally, the white supremacist society couldn’t see those relationships as consensual so interracial sex between black men and white women was always viewed as rape. This narrative encouraged white women to jump to accusations of sexual violence to protect themselves against social embarrassment.

Safeguarding white women from this threat led to laws regulating that masters could only free their slaves if those slaves left the state after manumission to ensure they didn’t engage in interracial sex with white women or inspire armed slave revolts.

After the Civil War, Southern lawmakers could no longer require that free black people move North. As a response to the Reconstruction amendments and civil rights laws that threatened to acknowledge African Americans’ humanity and citizenship, groups like the Ku Klux Klan organized to enforce a racist social order. To justify lynchings and other racist violence, they relied on the most dangerous example of white women acting as “damsels in distress” when they accused African American men of sexual assault. White men claimed the barbarism of lynching was required to protect white women from the sexual threat of black men. Due process wasn’t sufficient and it became the right of white men to protect their women through whatever means they found necessary.

Allegations of sexual assault accounted for about 25 percent of lynchings, and white women were complicit in the culture surrounding these gruesome events. They made accusations, participated in lynch mobs, attended spectacle lynchings and even lied to protect the lynchers in court, such as at the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers in 1955.

Yet, Southerners’ handling of cases in which white women accused white man of sexual assault showed claims about the need to protect white womanhood were simply a cover for enacting racist violence. Southern society exhibited little interest in protecting white womanhood in those cases, particularly if the white man was of good social standing. Rape was rarely prosecuted until the mid-20th century and until recently most jurisdictions required “force” as a component of the crime. For most of American history, it was rare for white men to be convicted of rape.

Yet, despite its hollowness, the claim that white womanhood required protection has been used to justify all kinds of bigoted laws and actions. Casting the barbaric “other” as a sexual threat to white American women was a common wartime tactic, used in American propaganda against the Japanese in World War II for example. These racist tropes justified harsher treatment of the Japanese than the Germans, including Japanese American internment and dropping the atomic bomb.

This trope also played a role in American anti-communist propaganda during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s. This propaganda associated sexual deviancy and queerness with communism and a threat to the American family. In those years, images of women were placed on fighter jets to make clear protecting American womanhood was what soldiers were fighting for.

The concept of the white “damsel in distress” has continued to provide a justification for all sorts of policy goals in the 21st century — all of which are unrelated to women’s rights. Supposed concerns over women’s safety have been used to pass anti-trans laws which cast trans women as sexual threats to cis women in bathrooms and locker rooms. President Trump has also employed this tactic to stir up anti-immigrant fervor by fabricating stories of Mexican rapists and murderers.

As with earlier instances, the goal of such policies isn’t really about protecting women from sexual violence. The Violence Against Women Act has yet to be reauthorized despite expiring in 2019, there are over 100,000 untested rape kits in the United States, loopholes allow domestic abusers to get guns and domestic violence is an urgent problem during the covid-19 pandemic while many women are quarantined at home with their abusers.

When women like Cooper act as the “damsel in distress” in need of saving from black man, they are perpetuating centuries-old deadly narratives that excuse racial violence and are complicit in anti-feminist propaganda. They are not only engaging in racism but also in patriarchal notions about the need for white men to protect white womanhood.

While this behavior does little to support women’s safety and equality, it puts lives, particularly of black men, at risk, and perpetuates bigoted tropes and white supremacy in our society.

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