Sandra Bland and the Lack of Focus on Black Female Victims of Police Brutality

The Sandra Bland case is something that is really hard for me to write about, but it is very necessary for me to write about it. I am a black woman after all.

My being a black woman is the very reason why it’s hard for me to write about this case because I could very well be Sandra Bland. I know I’m not a threat to anyone (I don’t even like killing insects, even gnats), but someone, somewhere out there, would view me as a threat, either because of what I look like, what I might say, or what I write about. That’s not just terrible; that’s scary. 

Bland’s death has been widely publicized, but she is just one of many black women who have died at the hands of corrupt police officers (which includes Kindra Chapman, a young woman who was found dead in her cell here in Alabama). #BlackLivesMatter has been dominated by the stories of black men and boys who have died due to police interaction, but the movement, particularly the women of the movement, have always made a point of including the names of women and girls who have been killed. The #SayHerName movement specifically highlights the female lives that have been lost.

There are a lot of reasons as to why black women are routinely forgotten in discussions about police violence. There’s a patriarchal issue, even within well-meaning movements like #BlackLivesMatter; this issue was even at the heart of the 1960s civil rights movement. There’s the wall of stereotypes that blocks black women not just from the sympathies of everyday people, but from black men as well.  The idea that black women are either “strong” or only capable of fighting with each other and being sexually promiscuous both send the erroneous message that black women’s feelings are not worth value. Sadly, some of these stereotypes are kept alive by some black men, for various reasons (which could be a post by itself).

Regardless of why black women get the short end of the compassion stick, the fact is that black women are human beings who are also unfairly targeted by the corrupt members of the police force. To quote Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women by the African American Policy Forum:

The lack of meaningful accountability for the deaths of unarmed Black men also extended to deaths of unarmed Black women and girls in 2015. Just as the officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner escaped punishment for these homicides, officers who killed Black women and girls were not held accountable for their actions. Joseph Weekley, who killed a sleeping, seven-year-old Aiyana StanleyJones, escaped prosecution after a jury failed to convict him in his second trial. Dante Servin, an offduty officer who shot Rekia Boyd in the back of the head, was cleared by a judge of all charges. Other officers faced no charges whatsoever, such as those who killed Mya Hall, a Black transgender woman.

None of these killings of Black women, nor the lack of accountability for them, have been widely elevated as exemplars of the systemic police brutality that is currently the focal point of mass protest and policy reform efforts. The failure to highlight and demand accountability for the countless Black women killed by police over the past two decades, including Eleanor Bumpurs, Tyisha Miller, LaTanya Haggerty, Margaret Mitchell, Kayla Moore, and Tarika Wilson, to name just a few among scores, leaves Black women unnamed and thus underprotected in the face of their continued vulnerability to racialized police violence.

Say Her Name shows that in 2013, the percentages of black women being stopped by the police are just as high as black men; in that year, 55.7% of men were stopped by police in New York City were black, and 53.4% of women who were stopped in the same city were also black. Similarly, Latino men and Latina women were also stopped about the same frequency, with Latino men making up 29.3% and Latina women making up 27.5%.

Black women have always been at the heart of civil rights movements, including this one, but in many ways, our lives and our struggles have been counted for less. That could be because of the aforementioned stereotypes, or because black women are routinely at the center of their families in a matriarchal, “stable”-looking position. To someone else, it might seem like the black women holds a lot of power, and doesn’t need as much protection as the black male, who has been emasculated since slavery. However, black women have been defeminized since slavery, either made to be just a caretaker, or just a sexual object, or just a body to deliver a baby. A woman in slavery could experience one or all of these things, and still be put in the role of somehow being the one to keep her family (whether they’d been sold to other plantations or not) together. For centuries, the black woman’s pain has been overlooked, and unfortunately, the black woman’s pain is still overlooked by many.

To quote Say Her Name:

Our failure to rally around Black women’s stories represents a broader failure to demand accountability for all Black lives targeted by the state. Families who lose Black women to police violence are not regularly invited to speak at rallies and do not receive the same level of community support or media and political attention as families who lose Black men. This leaves the families of Black women killed by the police to suffer not only the loss of their loved ones but also to confront the fact that no one seems to care. Yet the killings of Black women and girls are no less troubling than the killings of their male counterparts. Their families mourn no less for their lost loved ones, and they should not be left to suffer in solitude and silence.

Black women have consistently played a leadership role in struggles against state violence— from the Underground Railroad to the anti-lynching movement to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to the current Black Lives Matter movement—yet the forms of victimization they face at the hands of police are consistently left out of social movement demands. Black women leaders are often asked to speak only about their fears of losing their sons, brothers, partners, and comrades. Yet as the tragedies that have befallen many Black women who have died at the hands of the police reveal, Black women and girls also face real risks of lethal police violence, which must be contested along with those facing Black men and boys.

There’s another element to Sandra Bland’s case that makes me particularly mad, and that’s the treatment of her case and cases like it in mainstream feminism. For this post, I’m going to refer to it in capital letters— “Mainstream Feminism”— since to me, Mainstream Feminism is a subgenre of the study and practice of feminism itself, because Mainstream Feminism often largely misses the point of the meaning of feminism.

I’ve written before in various disparate articles about feminism and the plight of black women and other minorities in feminism. But I have to say that I’m seeing a large disconnect from Mainstream Feminism and movements such as the #SayHerName movement. Now, I could be wrong, but I stay on the internet for most of the day, doing work or whatnot, and eventually I find my way to Twitter and magazine websites. I have yet to really see the people who call themselves “Mainstream Feminists” largely decry the killing of black women, either in tweets or in articles. As Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman?” Aren’t black women women?

“Mainstream Feminism” is probably the most toxic form of feminism, since, while it clues people into the fact that feminism is, in fact, a thing, it only stops at a certain point. Society and the media have created a unique version of feminism in which there are gatekeepers to the idea, many of those gatekeepers being white women. Are white women allowed to fight for their causes? Sure; women still don’t get paid as much as a man and there are pro-choice rights to fight for, etc. But the nature of these fights are based in privilege, the privilege being that white women are still thought of as women. White women may have been denied a lot of things in this country, but they were still granted with humanity, while their black counterparts were thought of as chattel who, despite being depicted as sub-human animals, were somehow only “good” enough to be used by the master.

The lack of popular “Mainstream Feminists” standing against police brutality against white women shows how there’s no intersectionality between white women and black women, and white women with women of other minorities. As I wrote in this piece about that “Lean-In” article and Jessica Williams:

[White feminist could be] a term that could be considered a pejorative, but it’s meant to describe a white woman who rightly believes in feminism, but wrongly believes that every woman should adhere to her ideas and philosophies about feminism. Regardless of race, class, or other background markers, this particular brand of feminist believes that every woman should idolize Fey, Poehler, Dunham, et al., be a slave to Girls, and that Beyonce is the only black feminist worth listening to. (I have a separate beef about Beyonce in the feminism discussion, but that’s for another time.)

This limited view of feminism doesn’t even begin to recognize that minority women have very different views of womanhood and feminism. Every woman period has different ideas of what defines them as a woman, to be honest. But white feminism largely ignores that. For instance, instead of understanding a Muslim woman’s decision to wear a hijab or a burqa, they declare the articles of clothing the enemy and proceed to “liberate” (i.e. bully) women from them. Meanwhile, the argument that gets lost in the discussion is that many women use the burqa and hijab as their own form of feminism. Some use the burqa for the literal and figurative cover it provides the user to keep out of the government’s clutches and fight for women’s rights, like Parween, a women’s activist and a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Others use the hijab to focus more on spiritual wholeness and as a way to rail against Western beauty ideals. Women also use the hijab to step away from the hypersexualized world and reclaim their sisterhood. In all of these scenarios, the decision to wear the burqa or hijab took a lot of deep thought, including the consideration of the meaning the patriarchal society has put on these items of clothing.

If feminism is really going to succeed, Mainstream Feminism needs to stop with its white-woman gatekeeping and actually accept other women’s viewpoints and struggles. If all women are supposed to be fighting for one another, then all women need to actually do that. When one woman is killed by police, then all women need to be enraged by it. Instead of the feminist rhetoric being about who women should consider role models and how they should look in order to have a seat at the Cool Girls Table, feminist rhetoric needs to be about how we stop Latina and black women from being persecuted by police, how we prevent Native women from being abducted and killed, and how to stop stereotypes that make women of all minorities out to either be single-minded caretakers or sexual objects. The rhetoric should be how to make America and the world safe for all women to live like how they want to live with no judgments. One of the ways we could start that intersectionality is for unilateral support of #SayHerName.

As I wrote in that linked piece:

Michaela Angela Davis’ article for Jezebel, 12 Years A Slave: Privilege, Black Women and White Women takes on the task of succinctly explaining why today’s women’s lib movement can’t gain real ground until black and white women have honest talks about the wound slavery caused.

“The relationship between the mistress and the slave woman was so poisoned from its inception it could never be healed, they could never trust, they could never work for liberation together. Is this our original sin? Could this be at the root of why Black women were cut out of the American suffrage movement when it came time for voting rights for women? Why many white abolitionist women turned their backs on the violence against southern Blacks to secure their own right to vote?…Is this wicked characterization of Black women as illiterate harlots permanently seared into the psyche of white women? Is this why the feminist movement has primarily been reserved for white women of privilege?…Women’s movements can’t move in America until we have courageous honest discourse about the sadistic historic foundation of the relationship. We were systematically cultured to distrust and envy each other. We were never meant to be sisters.”

Photo of Sandra Bland. Photo credit: Facebook.com/Sandra.Bland