The next day, a tweet went viral with a video of Christian Cooper discussing his passion for birdwatching:
As more information began to be shared about his background, people began to fawn. “Harvard grad. Biomedical editor. Former editor at Marvel Comics. Avid birder. Christian Cooper is not a threat to anyone,” read one tweet with more than 6,000 likes. “He’s beautiful and clearly brilliant,” read another. Even celebrity Chrissy Teigen weighed in, retweeting the video with her own sarcastic caption, “Well I for one am TERRIFIED.”
Slowly, parts of the narrative started to shift away from Amy Cooper’s heinous actions and toward Christian Cooper’s merits, suggesting just how outrageous it was that a man with his education, demeanor and appearance be threatened. It’s a cycle that repeats itself over and over: Often, when a black person is harassed, or worse, well-meaning people try to illustrate their humanity and harmlessness by highlighting a résumé, trying to draw out evidence of the black person’s innocence by noting their education and talent, rather than emphasizing that simply being human should be enough.
Christian Cooper could have been walking through the park sagging his pants, with tattoos covering his face and neck, with flashy jewelry, and with no knowledge of birding and no college degree. He could have fit every racial stereotype, and he still wouldn’t have deserved to be threatened. He would have had just as much right to ask Amy Cooper to leash her dog, and her actions would have been equally unjustifiable. But when we emphasize how nonthreatening some black people appear, we inadvertently wind up ratifying fears of about other black people. When we put certain black people — Ivy League-educated, urbane and attractive — on a pedestal, we’re suggesting a hierarchy that says black people have to be exceptional just to be allowed to live.
It happens in reverse when some start to search for perceived culpability as a way to explain a black person’s death. When video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing went viral, it was quickly followed by speculation about what he might have done to deserve it: Various outlets reported on videos that appeared to show Arbery walking onto an open construction site, as if this might demonstrate that his presence in the neighborhood where he was killed provided context or a potential explanation for the events that led to his death. Shortly after that, it was reported that in 2017, Arbery had been tasered by police after being detained and questioned — with the implication, intended or not, that it might shed light on his death years later.
In 2015, a grand jury declined to charge two police officers involved in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — whom prosecutors at one point reportedly described as “big for his age — 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, with a men’s XL jacket and size 36 pants.” After Trayvon Martin was killed, he was portrayed as a thug by some in the media. Though he later apologized, Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera initially advanced the notion that black and Latino youths invite suspicion by wearing hooded sweatshirts, saying: “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”
This idea, that black people need to pass some sort of presentability threshold or be particularly prodigious to nullify threats to their lives or liberty, is dangerously pervasive, and isn’t limited to observers on social media. In a speech last year addressing racial profiling, presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden said: “We’ve got to recognize that kid wearing a hoodie may very well be the next poet laureate, and not a gangbanger” — as if a “gangbanger” is any less deserving of life than a poet. As if gangbangers cannot be poets. As if gangbangers deserve to be racially profiled.
I am 17 years old, black and have served as a poet laureate. I plan on attending Yale University in the fall. I fit the bill of a young Christian Cooper, and it terrifies me to think that had I not found a passion for writing early in my life, or had I struggled in school, or if I’d chosen to skip college, my right to the presumption of innocence or concern for my physical welfare would somehow decrease on the scales of respectability politics. It terrifies me to know that some would only see me as human as long as I’m able to produce evidence of merit or meet a standard.
Black lives, and black rights, matter whether we’re educated, well-connected or attired a certain way. We should be allowed to be unremarkable without that having any bearing on our safety. We don’t owe anyone exceptionalism in exchange for respect, or for the valuation of our lives.