I waited a few days after Sandra Bland's arrest video was released before watching it. I kept trying to ignore the story, hoping it would disappear from my Facebook News Feed. I didn't want to face the fact that a young black woman, who could have easily been me, was arrested and ended up dead in her Texas jail cell for failing to use her turn signal. I wanted to continue with the delusion that my size and gender can protect me from police brutality, falsely comforted by the thought that there is no world in which I could be perceived as threatening.
After watching the video, I realized the flaw in my reasoning. Sandra Bland wasn't dragged out of her car by Texas State Trooper Brian Encina because she was perceived as a threat, she was attacked by him because she refused to grin and bear it. She had the audacity to be black while expressing a modicum of irritation over being pulled over.
She didn't yell or use foul language and she didn't make any sudden movements. Encina asked her if she was OK and she responded honestly, saying, "I feel like it's crap what I'm getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn't stop you from giving me a ticket..." Then he asked her if she minded putting out her cigarette, she asked, "Why?" That's the moment he starts going into a rampage, first asking her to get out of the car, then threatening to "light her up" with a stun gun and ultimately physically removing her from her automobile.
How dare she not thank him and leap for joy over getting a ticket? How dare she ask questions and exercise her rights?
I put myself in Bland's shoes and wonder how I would have reacted. Maybe I would have asked questions as well, demanded to know why I was being arrested. Most likely, though, I would have smiled and wished the cop a nice day, afraid of the consequences of doing otherwise. It's a struggle I often face as a woman of color, toeing the line between asserting myself and hanging back, careful not to ruffle any feathers and end up being disproportionately attacked for it.
This is what happens when we live in a society where black women are continually discriminated and marginalized. A world where there hasn't been a black woman in the senate in more than 15 years, where no black woman has won an Emmy for a dramatic lead, where black women are disproportionately underpaid and underemployed when compared to their white counterparts.
Here in Charlotte, a group of CEOs recently banded together to tackle some of the toughest issues facing our city, issues like income inequality and education. The group, called the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, has noble goals, but of the 25 private sector and university leaders who form this group, there isn't a single black woman. It's hard to imagine how they'll undertake these issues when the demographic most severely impacted by them doesn't have a seat at the table.
On the other hand, when black women do take bold stances, like in the cases of TV executive Shonda Rhimes and First Lady Michelle Obama, they are often labeled "angry," their voices muffled by the pervasive stereotype.
There's a growing movement of activists bringing awareness to the black women whose lives have been lost to police violence. These activists and those supporting them have been using the hashtag #SayHerName on social media. It's an incredibly powerful message, one that aims to recognize the full humanity and experiences of these women. Too often, the narrative of police brutality centers around black men, even though black women are also routinely victimized by law enforcement. Naming that disparity and creating a space where their lives can be honored is absolutely necessary. And I think it's exactly what we should be doing for all black women.
Let's say their names. Let's push for a world that recognizes the complexity and full humanity of all black women instead of reducing them to a few stereotypes. Black women are CEOs. Black women know their rights. Black women get angry. Black women smoke cigarettes. Black women feel joy. They are activists. They have opinions. They are strong. They are marginalized. They are brilliant. They are tired. Their lives matter.