Ever since Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail cell earlier this month, her case has been on my mind. I noted in my January column titled, “Black Women’s Lives Matter, Too,” that black women are subjected to police brutality and have been murdered by the police, but the community never rallies around those cases, and are often not even aware of them. Until now, none of those cases had garnered the amount of attention or outrage as the deaths of black men by law enforcement.
For whatever reason, people could not wrap their heads around women being brutalized, so the dashboard camera plays a major role in allowing people to see much of the interaction between Bland and the officer. Bland was also an outspoken, attractive, college-educated, Black Lives Matter activist. This matters in terms of folks who only like to fight for “the right kind of people,” which is also known as the “respectability” mantra.
Most people who feel Sandra Bland was unjustly killed believe she was murdered by the police and are demanding accountability for that murder. It matters if the police murdered her in terms of getting the harshest sentence for the perpetrators. However, it’s already clear, whether Bland died by a police officer’s hand or her own hand, they killed her. White supremacy and racism killed her the same way it slowly kills millions of African Americans in this country. Constantly being stereotyped, marginalized, vilified, and, all too often, working harder than most for a meager subsistence gets to you. Each day, it kills a part of your spirit.
Take, for instance, the stereotype of the “angry black woman.” Although I’m soft-spoken and though I sometimes hate to admit it, shy, I have recently been stereotyped as an angry black woman by some white people in the local political and media scene. My ethnic features have been used as a source of disdain and derision as these mean-spirited, racist bullies have spread rumors that I’m always angry and walk around with my bottom lip sticking out. Um, I have thick lips and, yes, my bottom lip protrudes out further than my top lip. But no, I’m not poking out my lip in anger, my bottom lip just sticks out—and many of my African brothers and sisters happen to think I’m quite cute, I may add. The fact that this, and other, malicious gossip has been spread continuously by people who don’t look like me, don’t share my culture, and apparently have no knowledge of or respect for African features, is just one illustration of what it’s like to navigate a society that constantly kills your spirit. This is the type of stuff that eats at you each day.
It also lets me know that the “angry black woman” stereotype is so pervasive and so believable to white folks that all actions can be made to fit into the stereotype when displayed by black women, even if those actions contradict one another. Thus, if you are a passionate vocal advocate, you’re angry. If you are soft-spoken, you’re not overly vocal because you’re angry. If you look people directly in the eyes, you’re angry. If you take a more subservient demeanor and divert your eyes or look down, you’re angry.
To be a black woman in America often means that a piece of your spirit is crushed each day. You graduate from college and maybe even get an advanced degree, but none of that shields you from the daily indignities that you will face.
A few years ago, in the Eastern Market area, I pulled behind a minivan as the minivan’s occupants were getting into the car. Happy to find a parking space, I patiently waited as they got into the vehicle and put the kids into the car seat. There was a white male police officer on the other side of the street. I didn’t think anything of it when he walked over to my car. I let my window down, so I could hear what he wanted to tell me. He then started to berate me about parking illegally and I calmly explained that I was not parked, I was waiting for the car in front of me to pull out of their parking space, so I could park there. He then starts speaking in a very aggressive and hostile tone, and when I try to respond, he snaps back, “shut up, don’t say a word.” He then goes on about whether I can afford a $200 ticket. After he finished his rant, I pulled into the parking space and he walked away. His hostility was unnecessary and I was boiling inside. I was too taken aback at the time to get his name or badge number. After I got out of the car, I saw him standing on the corner, but I chose my personal safety over confronting him to get his badge number. On Inauguration Day in 2008, I also experienced this same hostility from a white male police officer, whose hostile tone and aggression startled me so much, I dropped and broke my camera.
So, when the officer started speaking in a hostile tone toward Sandra Bland, I recognized the tone immediately. It is the same demeaning, hostile tone that white male officers have used toward me on several instances.
This hostility comes from a place of interacting with someone who you don’t deem to be equal. When you are black, a woman, and either young or young-looking, my experience has shown that some white male officers take any assertion that you are their equal as a personal affront. This belief extends far beyond interactions with law enforcement and the repercussions of this mentality often manifest itself in hostile behavior from some white men in other settings.
My situation with the police officer in Eastern Market could have escalated if I did not swallow my pride and allow this hostile officer to disrespect me. However, I wanted to respond as Sandra Bland did. You can’t imagine how demeaning it is for someone to yell “Shut up” in your face and to say nothing back because you’ve decided it’s the “practical” way to deescalate the situation and not get arrested or an unwarranted ticket. We go through this type of blatant hostility and disrespect every day and it gets to you.
Bland chose a healthy way of addressing the societal and systemic racism by connecting with the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, she still found herself demeaned and in jail for a minor traffic offense, after, if her experiences have been anything like mine, a lifetime of pushing to persevere and thrive in a hostile society.
We may never truly know if the police murdered Sandra Bland or if she technically died by her own hand. But one thing is abundantly clear: No matter the circumstances, white supremacy and racism killed her.
Lateefah Williams is a regular contributor to the Washington Blade.