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Confronting Racism Up Close: A Q&A with Christian Cooper

Chris Cooper 2

May 25, 2020. Memorial Day. The day George Floyd died in Minnesota. In New York City’s Central Park, Christian Cooper was birdwatching, as he often does, in the area known as the Ramble, and saw a woman letting her dog run around unleashed. Keeping his distance, Cooper told the woman that dogs must be leashed in that area, as per the signs posted. In response, the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), called the police and reported that an “African American man” was “threatening” her and her dog. Christian Cooper recorded the encounter, and the video went viral almost immediately after being posted on social media.

The video has been viewed more than 40 million times and made headlines across the United States and beyond. Christian Cooper has since been interviewed by media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, CBS News, and "The View." Amy Cooper was fired from her job and, on July 6, the Manhattan district attorney announced that it would charge her with filing a false police report. Christian Cooper, however, has said he has no interest in cooperating with the prosecution. “On the one hand, she’s already paid a steep price,” he said in a statement on July 7. “That’s not enough of a deterrent to others? Bringing her more misery just seems like piling on. ... If the DA feels the need to pursue charges, he should pursue charges. But he can do that without me.”

Christian Cooper, my former colleague from our days editing and writing for Marvel Comics, sat down with me recently for a Q&A. We discussed his experiences facing prejudice as both an African American and as a gay man, what he hopes people will take away from what happened in Central Park, the power of storytelling, and how he became an avid birdwatcher at the age of 10.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Glenn Greenberg: Remind me where you’re from originally.

Christian Cooper: I was born in Manhattan and I grew up on Long Island.

GG: Did you experience prejudice in school?

CC: Of course. I was, certainly up until high school, one of the only black kids in the honors classes. So it was a sea of white faces. And it also meant that most of my friends were white, because that’s who I was in class with. That led to friction with black kids; it led to friction with white kids.

At one point, this was in high school, some kid came up to me and said, “How come you're always hanging with the white folks?” And I was like, “What do I say to that? I mean, they’re just my friends, you know?”

Also in high school, the lunch room was kind of bifurcated in half. All the black kids ate in one lunch room, and all the white kids ate in another lunch room. So I, among others, [addressed] the problem by not eating in the lunch room. I played in the orchestra, so I took my lunch in the music wing and just did not deal with that nonsense.

GG: What about in terms of being gay? Did you experience a lot of prejudice because of that?

CC: Yeah, in that I knew that I had to keep it absolutely secret on pain of death. Especially back then. I mean, we're talking about the late 70s. It just wasn't a thing, you know? If you were tagged as gay back then, your life was over. You would be mercilessly harassed, picked on, targeted. You'd lose all your friends.

Finally, senior year [of high school], I came out to one friend, in the latter half of the year. It was a girl, and I trusted her like a thousand percent and I had to work up to it, practically the whole year.

So it's not that I faced [prejudice directly], because I didn't let anybody know. The way I always described being in the closet is, it’s like being buried alive because you're suffocating, and you're banging on the lid of the coffin screaming to be let out. And everyone's watching over your grave thinking everything's just fine. They have no idea that you're actually in there screaming for help and there's no way to get it.

I think that's one reason I'm a very happy person now—because I was so baseline miserable as a kid because of being in the closet. And once I came out, I was like, “Nothing’s going to be worse than that!”

I wasn't going to participate in my own dehumanization.

GG: You went to Harvard. Were people more open-minded there or was it more of the same?

CC: They were much more open-minded. Race issues were, of course, there—they're never not there—but nothing quite so overt or acute as it was in high school.

You get to college and people are more open-minded, they feel like they're supposed to be more open-minded, especially when you’re at Harvard. You're dealing with a greater amount of enlightenment, less ignorance, more exposure to things. So things were definitely better in college.

There was race stuff, and there was gay stuff. Now we're talking the early 80s—still not a great time for gay people in this country. I was in the closet my first semester, freshman year. And then I was like, “Oh my god, I can't do this anymore.” So I came out to all four of my roommates in, like, a single night, and they were all great. We're friends to this day. We roomed together all four years.

GG: That's great! With regard to what happened in Central Park, what’s your perspective on being at the center of this incident and having so much attention thrust upon you?

CC: When it was actually happening, I was surprised when she made it racial. I did not expect that because up until that point, it had been just another conflict between a dog walker and a birder (bird watcher)—which, sad to say, is not uncommon in the Ramble. So I was surprised, I was rattled and nervous, because I was like, “Oh wow, this could be bad for me.” But I decided, well, I'm not going to give in to her attempt at racial intimidation.

The thing I've been saying a lot is, I wasn't going to participate in my own dehumanization because to give into that would have been to give her the power to take away my humanity, my power to do what anybody had a right to do at that moment, which was record her behavior, whether I was brown or white or green or purple.

The other thing I’ve been saying is, she pulled the pin on the grenade of race, and she tried to lob it at me and instead it blew up in her face.

GG: And yet she apparently doesn’t see herself as being a racist.

CC: Honestly, I don't know if she's a racist. I know that particular act was a racist act. That act was 60 seconds in a very stressful situation, where the two of us were in verbal confrontation. It doesn’t excuse it; it was still a racist act. But I don't know about the rest of her life. And I don't know that people should be judged on 60 seconds of spectacularly poor judgment.

I don't know what she's going to do with her life going forward. Is she a racist? I can’t answer that. Only she can answer that, with what she does with the rest of her life.

It showed how people can weaponize race.

GG: How do you feel about this incident having sparked a nationwide conversation?

CC: It sparked a nationwide conversation in large part because of what happened in Minnesota only a few hours later. But the two events in conjunction informed each other and by comparison, my event is minor. I'm still alive to talk about it.

What happened to George Floyd, what happened a little bit before that, with Ahmaud Arbery—those are the incidents that matter. But the reason what happened to me is getting attention at all in light of those much more serious incidents is because they all come from the same wellspring of racial bias. That was an attempt to use, to manipulate racial bias. The fact that that's where her mind went at that moment in the conflict, that's how she thought to gain an edge in the conflict, [by] going to that dark place of racial bias—that's the racial bias that made that cop think it was okay to lean on that man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead. That racial bias is what led those white suburbanites to jump into their vans and chase down a black man going for a jog and shoot him dead and say it was self-defense.

So if I can steer that conversation in positive ways and get people to maybe examine things they normally wouldn't examine and think about things they normally wouldn’t think about, then I'll keep talking.

GG: How would you like your experience in Central Park to be looked back on if it's used as an example for dialogue and situational work, say in an anti-racism curriculum?

CC: It showed a couple of things. It showed how people can weaponize race. She knew—consciously or unconsciously, I can't say which—that by saying an African American man was threatening her life, she had an expectation that that would bring special urgency in response.

And similarly, the fact that in society, it’s not surprising that the police would respond with special vehemence to a black man in particular being accused of something. In fact, people who would profess surprise, who’d say, “Oh, I’m surprised that this is happening in New York City”—because I've heard that a couple of times—they’ll say it’s so liberal here. And I'm like, “Have you not been paying attention? Were you not around when Amadou Diallo was killed in a hail of 41 bullets for sitting on his own doorstep by the cops? Were you not around when Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold [by cops] on Staten Island, allegedly for selling loose cigarettes, and he choked until he was dead? So why are you surprised? This is not new!”

GG: I want to touch upon your work at Marvel. What were you hoping to accomplish and communicate through comics?

: Great stories that had something to say!

One of my favorites, especially right now, is a story I wrote for Midnight Sons Unlimited #2. It was written as a direct response to the Rodney King verdict, when they acquitted those cops of beating that man senseless. I was seething with fury, just like the rest of black America. And so I put it into a story called “Skin,” and I'm proud of that story to this day.

But stories aren't always born out of rage. Sometimes you have something to say about the other parts of the human condition. Whenever I was writing Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, I mean, we had such great material to work with!

GG: Yes! You and I were both writing Star Trek comics for Marvel at around the same time.

CC: Star Trek has this whole ethos about a better humanity—who doesn't want to tell stories in that regard?

GG: Exactly.

CC: There’s a whole bunch of things you can say in a story in ways you can’t say any better in any other way. Storytelling is the best!

GG: And how did you get into birdwatching?

CC: I built a bird feeder in woodworking class and put it up in the backyard. And I got really interested in the “crows with red on the wings” that kept coming to the bird feeder. I thought I discovered a new species of crow! And then I learned they were red-winged blackbirds.

Red winged blackbird 1

That, and a cross-country camping trip [my family and I] took. There wasn't a lot of room in the van, so, one of the few books we had with us—and it was a lot of driving, so there was a lot of time to flip through the book—was the Field Guide to the Birds. By the time we reached the West Coast, a bird would fly by and I’d go, “Oh, look, Mom and Dad, a black-billed magpie!” And they looked at me like, “How the hell does he know that?” And it was because I read the book!

: You've been birdwatching since you were a kid?

: Since I was about 10 years old.

: Any tips on how to do it correctly for an effective observational and learning experience?

: Yes! There is a key to using binoculars properly. And you want a pair of binoculars if you're birding, because it makes the experience infinitely better. When you see a bird, you want to keep your eyes on the bird. Find the bird first with the naked eye, keep your eyes on the bird and bring the binoculars to your eyes. Do not look down at your binoculars and then look up with the binoculars on your eyes and think you’re going to see the bird, because you won't! It takes a little practice, but you’ll get better and better at it as you do it more.

: Why is it so important to do it that way?

: Think of it this way: it's like the targeting scanners on the Starship Enterprise. Your eyes are the targeting scanners. You get the targeting lock, you keep the lock! You don't release the targeting lock and then fire phasers—you’ll miss!

: That is one interesting way of explaining it. You and I are probably the only ones who are going to understand it.

: People only need to understand this: Get outside and start birding! Qapla! (That’s Klingon for “Success!”)

The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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