Justice Reflection

Exposing the Invisible Contract That Underlies Racism in America

The morning of the day George Floyd was murdered, an encounter between a man watching birds and a woman walking her dog in Central Park (NYC) turned hostile. His name is Christian Cooper. Her name is Amy Cooper. No relation.

If you missed this story in the news, read Christian’s Facebook post here.

The irony of the shared last name between a black birdwatcher and a white dog-walker in Central Park should not be lost on anyone. There was an invisible contract lingering in the air between them. A master-slave agreement that America has banked on for centuries. A forced proverbial handshake whose origins lie in the sale, purchase, and ownership of black bodies as property in America.

Amy Cooper’s actions (calling the police to hysterically tell them, “there’s an African-American man threatening my life”) were triggered the moment she realized that Christian Cooper was not holding up his end of the 400-year-old agreement. He was breaching the contract. In fact, he ripped the contract to shreds right before her eyes, exposing the twisted, yet normalized, reality of her world.

He asked her to leash her dog in an area of the park where leashes are required. She called the police instead. This is a decidedly American moment. Two American citizens standing up for what they believe are their inalienable rights. But one of them is delusional, and it’s not the birdwatcher for once.

I am regretful that there have been moments in my life when I let the contract linger in the air instead of ripping it to shreds. On the playground as a little girl. In the classroom as an adolescent. In government offices as an adult. I’ve even felt the shame of the invisible contract while driving next to someone in my car—when we aren’t even breathing the same air. It can be as “subtle” as a glance, as “harmless” as an unsolicited stroke of my hair, as “playful” as a game of house.

I literally discovered that I was “black”, and that my blackness was a liability, on the playground as a six year old. Playing house with the little white girls on my cheerleading squad as we waited for our football game to begin. We were all wearing the same uniform, but I quickly realized that we were not on the same team.

I said, “I’ll be the mom!” which was immediately met with a look of humored disgust by a girl who is now faceless in my memory. “You can’t be the mom—you’re BLACK,” she said. I had yet to realize that white skin was a prerequisite for such a starring role in amateur playground theatre. My parents hadn’t taught me this yet.

I was confused and embarrassed. Though I didn’t have the language for it then, I think this was the first time I experienced shame. It was my Pecola Breedlove moment. But instead of praying for blue eyes, I crawled into a whitewashed exoskeleton that I would only take off when crossing the threshold into my home, where black was a beautiful thing to be.

There were times I went to great lengths to avoid again being seen as too black to be worthy of a role in the world. Like the time I stood in front of my mostly white 8th grade history class and told them that my family was from Trinidad & Tobago because I was too ashamed to say that I could only trace as far back as Louisiana and Alabama before the story faded to black. I knew my white classmates would proudly pass around framed photos of their European family crests, and share boot-strapping stories about how their great-great-grandfather came to America from Ireland or Poland or Scandinavia with 43 dollars and a dream. I knew I would just want to disappear, but since that wasn’t possible, I settled for the next best thing—I lied.

I lied to survive that moment. A silly middle school social studies project. I had yet to acquire the spiritual or emotional tools needed to stand in front of a group of white peers and verbalize a painful personal truth that was only true because I was black in America.

So I relinquished control of my narrative. I let the contract linger.

It took me many years to fully shed that exoskeleton and live in my own skin. To be honest, the current upheaval and tension in our society has caused me to reflect on what un-shed particles I might still be wearing. I’m still processing that.

Needless to say, no one individual created the contract. And it is not conjured up by every white person when they encounter a black person in public. The contract is ubiquitous. It is a deceitful thread woven deeply into the fabric of American culture. Branded into our psyche by the sins of our past. It’s just in the air.

In America, racism is just in the air. It’s a caustic pollutant that has gone unseen and unaddressed for centuries. But it has now been exposed by the actions of a woman who felt threatened by a black man who was doing what is probably the least threatening public activity a person can engage in.

The question now is, how will we address it? The first step, in a manner of speaking, is to sift through the paperwork, confess our complicity, and erase our names from the contract. I choose to do this work through honest prayer, writing, and courageous conversation. I encourage you to find your ways of sifting, confessing, and erasing. They may look different than mine.

At the end of Christian Cooper’s video of his encounter with Amy, she finally leashes her dog. And just before he stops recording, you hear him say calmly, “Thank you.”

I echo that sentiment.

Thank you, Amy Cooper. Thank you for exposing the bitter fruit of implicit racial bias. Thank you for revealing the invisible contract. And thank you for leashing your dog.

Thank you.

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