As racial justice protests swept across America this summer, a handful of “Karen” videos — footage of white women calling the police on Black people, usually men, for no justifiable reason — went viral. Among them was a video shot in Montclair, New Jersey, a community about 40 minutes outside New York City that prides itself on being diverse and progressive. The people who filmed the scene were a Black husband and wife, both lawyers, whose backyard neighbor, a white woman, claimed they’d “pushed” her off their property for asking questions about the installation of a patio. As Allison P. Davis documents in her nuanced, provocative feature for The Cut, other white neighbors stood in solidarity with the Black couple:
While on the phone, Schulz paced in a circle. She approached a neighbor on the sidewalk, perhaps looking for someone to corroborate her story, perhaps just looking for sympathy. “Did you just see him physically push me?” she yelled.
“Oh, he absolutely didn’t push her,” reported the neighbor who had walked by. “I think she was looking to me — honestly, it did feel like a look of incredulity. Can you believe what he’s saying to me? I understand she was upset, but that’s just an insane trope that goes back so many hundreds of years of white women saying that Black men are assaulting them. And it was just really unbelievable she thought she would get away with that with witnesses.”
Over the phone, Schulz told the police, “I need an officer … the gentleman who is taller than me pushed me off his property.”
Neighbors began to yell things like “Shame on you” and “In this climate, you’re doing this?” while Schulz continued her defense, sometimes to the neighbors, sometimes to Norrinda and Fareed. “He pushed me ten feet … I came over here alone. I should have brought my son … Are you gonna say you didn’t put your hands on me?”
“It was like, Yo, this woman really believes what she’s saying,” Fareed recounted. “I feel like, in her mind, she really did start believing that she was assaulted. Maybe she was affronted by being told no. But for her, that affront was synonymous with me physically assaulting her. There was no difference in her mind.”
But when it came to neighbors supporting neighbors, the fallout of the incident was — in a word — complicated. There was a youth-led protest in front of the woman’s house, demands for a new ordinance about racist 911 calls, and letters that strangers sent to the Black family, apologizing for racism. In these, Davis saw something familiar:
That same summer, every white person I knew offered to march alongside me at rallies. I got texts from “Maybe: Susanna,” a person I didn’t really remember, dredging up a racial transgression I definitely didn’t remember. Borrowing the newly learned language of anti-racism, she apologized for any micro-aggression she had committed and apologized for making it my responsibility to explain HBCUs to her. I wrote back and told her “no sweat.” (It later turned out she had confused me with another Black colleague.) She was one of many who reached out to ask how they could be a good ally and wondered if there were times they hadn’t been. My phone was constantly buzzing with texts from white friends apologizing, checking on my well-being, offering me Venmo reparations and sympathy and empathy. I was appreciative but wary. They said they wanted to know about my experiences, but mostly they wanted to feel they had acknowledged that I’d had experiences with racism that they might have ignored, without exposure to all the grisly details.
In talking to Fareed, I often felt he was holding two opposing thoughts in his mind: relief that he lives in this intentional community that discusses race, that embraces the 24 percent, and loneliness at being at the center of a conversation in which everyone sees you and no one does. There can be an oppressiveness to sympathy, a way in which a newly galvanized community doesn’t let in room for doubt — for wondering whether the community would have been quite so galvanized if it hadn’t been the peak of a summer of racial-justice protests, if you still had locs or a shitty car in your driveway, or didn’t have a law degree, or your wife wasn’t the president of the PTA. When everyone is working so hard, when everyone is so vocally on your side, so apologetic for your experience, it’s easier to accept “Kumbaya” Montclair than to wrestle with those questions and ask other people to wrestle with them too.