The “Amy Cooper” Next Door: How Implicit Bias Works

Do you know a “Karen?” This very modern slur has been used to typify entitled, privileged behavior that results in demands or threats that go beyond the scope of what is considered appropriate. According to “slang” dictionary, a “Karen” is typically a white American, middle-aged woman who exhibits aggressive behavior whenever she is obstructed from getting her way.

Well, on Tuesday morning I woke to a cup of black coffee, twenty-two emails, and a new newsworthy instance of “Karen” like behavior targeting a black man with possible deadly intent. A viral video shows a white woman making threats to call the police on an unarmed black man who was bird-watching.

Christian Cooper is the man in the now infamous video of an outraged “Karen” in New York’s Central Park. Christian Cooper asked the woman to put her dog on a leash, per park rules. This simple request, made because the dog was damaging park flora, resulted in outrage and aggressive threats from Amy Cooper (henceforth no longer referred to as Karen), the woman who called the police and reported that the black man (there birdwatching) had threatened her and her dog as captured in the aforementioned video.

Amy Cooper had a specific intent with her “threat.” Surely she knew the history of racial claims in Central Park (Central Park Five) and is likely aware of recent crimes against unarmed black people (Ahmaud Arbery/Breonna Taylor).

“Amy Coopers” are way more prevalent in America and in American classrooms than anyone wants to acknowledge. She could easily be the teacher next door.

You may know her. When white students misbehave, she may consider them rowdy or troubled. When black students misbehave, she may consider them dangerous or disrespectful. Instead of threatening to call the police, she threatens to call the front office.

The real Amy Cooper is an actuarial science graduate of the University of Waterloo and is 41 years old. She worked, until recently, for Franklin Templeton Investments and earned a solid, six-figure income (well, maybe that salary takes her out of the teacher next door category, but you get my drift).

Why did Amy Cooper, a college educated professional who identifies with liberal ideology act in such a crass (best case), racist (worst case) manner? Is there anything that could have been done to avoid this outcome?

What motivated her is unknown (she claims fear) but what could have avoided it is something that is desperately needed in every American school- implicit bias training.

Implicit bias, which includes both favorable and unfavorable responses, are involuntary actions based on a person’s attitudes or stereotypes.

According to Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, some key characteristics of Implicit Bias include:

  • Implicit biases are pervasive.  Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.
  • Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs.  They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.
  • The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
  • We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup.
  • Implicit biases are malleable.  Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.

The famous Rosenthal (1960) Study first illustrated the harmful impact of implicit bias on public school children. The study proved that if teachers viewed students as having higher academic ability, increasingly those students demonstrated greater academic gains. As shared by The Graide Network (2018) “whether it’s gender or race, student preference or handwriting, any factor that causes a teacher to have higher expectations for some of their students and lower expectations for others is bound to create results to match.”

Implicit bias training typically starts with a focus on awareness and stresses the connection between unconscious bias and behaviors. The training stresses reflection, triggers, and awareness. It is often a great first step in a school or school system’s journey towards greater diversity and appreciation of diversity.

When I think about the name Karen, a former coworker and friend comes to mind. My friend Karen is compassionate, humble, extremely intelligent, and an advocate for all children. I have actually never seen my Karen exhibit “Karen” like behavior.  When I have exhibited “Karen” like behavior, she has always been quick to check me and call me out for it (don’t lie… we all have our “Karen” moments at times).

Personally, I don’t mind the “Karens” on my faculty. We have all been “Karens” at some point in our lives when we did not get “our way.” It’s the “Amy Coopers” that concern me. There will be lots of funding cuts made in the year to come due to the far-sweeping economic impact of COVID-19. I argue that if we are to help the “Amy Coopers” in our schools (and protect the students they serve), we need to make sure that the funding for implicit bias training, diversity efforts, and Social-Emotional Learning work is not cut.

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