Newly released video showing Sandra Bland’s interaction with a Texas State Trooper comes as no surprise to #Blacklivesmatter believers who know perfectly well a stop for improper lane changing never logically leads to suicide by hanging.
The dash camera video released by the Texas Dept. of Public Safety shows what many thought all along: Bland, 28, spoke up for herself July 10 when she was locked up in Waller County Jail, and her arresting officer, Brian Encinia, chose to escalate instead of walking away after she accepted the traffic ticket.
Let’s call Bland’s cause of death what it really is: Being uppity.
Any Black woman who has ever spoken up for herself and stood in the power of her own agency and moral authority knows what this feels like.
The video shows Bland pulled over and honestly perturbed at being curbed for a minor infraction in which no one was hurt and ostensibly done to get out of the way of a vehicle she says was closely tailing her. Of course, being irritated is an authentic human emotion, and coming from a white male would likely be tolerated. But our culture assesses what Northwestern University researchers Robert Livingston and Ashleigh Rosette have called an “agency penalty,” commonly applied on the basis of race and gender.
Historically, African-Americans who deign to assert themselves in public spaces have been called or perceived to be “uppity,” thinking they have a right to due process, consideration and the reciprocation of basic manners. That’s the vein Rosa Parks opened when she refused to move, why hatemongers go for the jugular when fathoming the fact President Obama has been in office a full eight years and why Donald Trump has apparently has lost his ever-loving mind. Judging from Trooper Encinia’s response to Bland’s irritation, he seems to have felt the need to cure her of her uppity attitude.
Why did the trooper ask Bland to put out the cigarette she was smoking as he handed off the ticket? The video shows Bland refusing to put it out because, as she stated, she was in her car. Ignoring Encinia’s order to shelve her agency appears to have set him off. In an overblown tit-for-tat, he pulled her out, roughed her up, locked her up — and now she’s dead.
Certainly, Bland could have been quieter or more conciliatory when asked what was on her mind — but since when is feeling a crime? Oh, when it’s a Black person because dominant culture doesn’t think we have feelings, something called the racial empathy gap. Acting inauthentically compliant would be something akin to the “emotional labor” Black women engage in when trying to fit in, according to workplace research by Marlese Durr and Adia Wingfield at Georgia State University.
Of course, Encinia could have stood down, modeling behavior befitting an authority figure, especially one with a gun. Instead, he can be heard on the radio after the arrest saying: “She wouldn’t even look at me. She was looking straight ahead, mad. You know.”
Expending emotional labor at a time when African-Americans are fighting both structural and overt forms of racism, coming up last in the race to jobs and having the highest rate of children in poverty, while just trying to get ahead, be happy, have fulfilling relationships and be productive like everybody else is just — tiring. Failure to respect our humanity, even the irritable sides of it, exposes how the racial empathy gap is killing us.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer who teaches journalism at Northwestern University.
What does uppity look like?
The idea that Sandra Bland died because she spoke up resonates with several Chicago-area women who could easily recall a time when standing in their excellence and power to work, play, invent, study or simply express themselves were called into question by dominant cultural forces. What’s normal? What’s uppity? Does it even matter?