Sandra Bland was murdered because she sounded and acted like a Black girl. Her death was a fatal example of the ways Black girls are regularly treated by society when we don’t use our Make-White-People-Feel-Comfortable skill sets.
This is especially true when we talk and act “Black” and don’t maintain consistent use the White Girl Voice in White spaces.
Acting Black: A Punishable Offense
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Woman’s Law Center recently released a report called Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls. The report took a deep dive into the ways that systematic racism and institutionalized White supremacy impact Black girls in education today.
The report noted several things including:
“The intersection of racial and gender stereotypes has a significant impact on discipline rates of African American girls…
For instance, the contrast between “traditional middle class notions of femininity, which require girls to be passive and modest, and stereotypical images of African American females as loud, confrontational, assertive and provocative, can generate differing punishments for similar conduct.” (emphasis added)
This means Black girls are being punished for acting and sounding like Black girls. The only way they can minimize those punishments is to take on behaviors and mannerisms usually expressed by White girls…(aka acting White).
When You See Ugly…
As I explain to educators during culturally responsive teaching professional development programs, many Black girls hail from cultures where being vocal, assertive and having expressive personalities large enough to play games like the dozens are considered good attributes—they’re the seeds of leadership skills in our community.
Which means if you have loud, high-energy, wordy, assertive Black girls in your class, those characteristics can be assets. But usually, as explained in the report, when seen as “acting Black,” Black girls aren’t praised as leaders, but shunned for being “ghetto.”
“The quality of assertiveness that some African American girls have — a valuable quality that generally has led to positive public perceptions of African American women in leadership roles — conversely puts them at greater risk for inequitable discipline in K-12 schools.”
Get it? The more “culturally Black” our girls act, the more they are punished. Even though the freedom to be “culturally Black” is one of the most valuable leadership skills we have.
Engaging in culturally Black displays of femininity is seen as threatening to the social order. And when they act like Black girls, our little sisters become the perpetrators of that threat.
Lessons from slavery teach us that it has always been dangerous when Black girls don’t squeeze our vibrant and beautifully Black selves into their cold, demure, square, cultural boxes.
What is a Girl Anyway?
During slavery White people used characteristics like skin color, body type, mannerisms and behaviors that they said were proof of our inferiority. Saying that Black femininity was beastly and undesirable helped to justify terrible things they did to us.
Today, our notion of what a “girl” looks and acts like is based on racial notions of femininity. White girls benefit from generations of racist ideals that hold them up as the ideal girl. Terms like “passive,” “modest,” “demure,” and “meek” are often used to describe traditional views of White femininity.
These restrictive gender stereotypes can be harmful for anyone but they’re especially harmful when used against us. In part because they are antithetical to many Black feminine cultural expressions. The report details that when little Black girls don’t conform to White notions of girlhood, there can be horrific consequences.
“Subjective offenses like “disobedience” or “disruptive behavior” can be code for a student’s failure to conform to dominant gender stereotypes, which shape [our] views of what is appropriate “feminine” behavior…for example, African American girls who are outspoken in class, who use profanity or who confront people in positions of authority…are disproportionately disciplined…”
The Angry Black “Tone”
Let’s face it, acting Black or having a Black Girl Tone can really limit one’s upwardly mobile aspirations. Because once you use the Black Girl Tone —everything you do is seen through the prism of Angry Blackness.
When we go to work, if we don’t use our “Make-White-People-Feel-Comfortable” skills, then we’re instantly believed to have a Tone or an Attitude. We transition from “Keisha the Team Player Who Just Got a Raise” to “Keisha the Mean Black Bitch of the Dark Continent.”
As soon as we forget to use our “I’m Happy To Be Here Working For Y’all” behavior, Jen feels like we’re a little moody…
If we don’t use our White Girl Voice, Jim thinks we yelled at him when we merely asked if he completed the assignment…
If we don’t use our Joking White Boy Office Laugh, Becka think you’re glowering and having a bad day and may even feel threatened. Even though you were just occupied with budgets and spreadsheets…
Now many of us adjust to this injustice and do what we can to laugh it off. (Anyone down for an episode of Blackish???)
But for those of us whose livelihoods depend on working at White owned institutions, making White People Feel Comfortable is a survival skill…one we use to make sure our economic sustainability is not threatened by our Blackness.
Because being Fully Black in White owned spaces is never good for long-term employment.
So, little Black girls get kicked out of school for intimidating people in power by acting “Black.” Grown Black women get demoted and fired for making people at work uncomfortable by acting “Black.”
But Black women like Sandra Bland who are hunted by racist cops like Encinia are murdered for it.
Acting Black makes White people very uncomfortable. And the first rule of White supremacy is that White people must always be allowed to be comfortable. Especially when it comes to issues of race.
Speaking While Black
The now infamous dash cam video footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest also includes footage of arresting officer Encinia pulling over someone before he targets Sandra.
It’s almost as if you’re watching two different cops. With the first driver, a student who did not have proof of insurance, Encenia is personable, pleasant even. He gives the first driver the type of policing reserved for White people.
After finishing with the first driver, Encinia sees Sandra and makes a U-turn to follow her. At that point, her only crime was driving while Black. After he pulls her over their conversation goes like this:
State Trooper Encinia: Hello ma’am. We’re the Texas Highway Patrol and the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change. Do you have your driver’s license and registration with you? What’s wrong? How long have you been in Texas?
Sandra Bland: Got here just today.
Encinia: OK. Do you have a driver’s license? (Pause) OK, where you headed to now? Give me a few minutes.
(Encinia returns to his car for several minutes, then approaches Bland again.)
Encinia: OK, ma’am. (Pause.) You OK?
Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When’re you going to let me go?
Encinia: I don’t know, you seem very really irritated.
Bland: I am. I really am. 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, so [inaudible] ticket.
Encinia: Are you done?
Bland: You asked me what was wrong, now I told you.
Bland: So now I’m done, yeah.
Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?
Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?
Encinia: Well you can step on out now.
The next thing you know Encinia is holding a taser to her head, screaming for her to get out of her car like she beat his mama and stole something. Let’s pause here for a moment.
Notice that Sandra didn’t curse, offer any unsolicited information or otherwise “backtalk” the officer.
The cop asked her questions and she answered. In fact if this were a dialogue between a cop and a 28-year-old white woman, as it reads, there’s nothing wrong with anything Sandra said.
What we get from the dash cam video, however, is her “Tone.”
Her “Tone” tells us a few things:
1) she’s irritated by getting a ticket (no surprise there—she said as much); and
2) she’s refusing to put on her White Girl Voice and Behavior.
This is what really pissed that racist cop off. Sandra did not use her Yassa Massa Voice. This is why media outlets keep saying she was combative when she wasn’t. She didn’t squeeze her vibrant uncontainable Blackness into the restricted form of appropriate Blackness that makes White people feel comfortable.
Sandra is dead because she didn’t defer to the officer’s White sensibilities fast enough.
This is the same thing that many of us were lynched for. Making White people uncomfortable with our Blackness could get our kids sold away. It could get our spouses tortured in front of us. It could result in forms of torture that Nazi soldiers only dreamed of and studied.
Racial slavery requires slaves to cower; to never look master in the eye. To do so is to assert your humanity; your dignity as a reflection of God. And if there’s one thing racist slave owners hated, it was being reminded that their animals slaves were really human beings.
Because that meant what White folks were doing was evil as only Satan knows. And being evil racist slavers makes White people uncomfortable (this is why schoolbooks show Black slaves singing happy Negro Spirituals. If the slaves were singing they must’ve liked slavery…Right??)
Sandra’s death reminds us that so long as we tie our ability to support ourselves, educate ourselves, or police ourselves, to the whims of people who have never shown the ability to see us as human, then this is what we’ll continue to get.
So long as we’re dependent on our version of Hitler to change its mind, repent and be truly sorry enough to change, before we can be free, then we will continue to lose.
It Doesn’t Have to be This Way
If my Blackness offends your White sensibilities at work then you don’t get the benefit of the genius that I bring to your work place.
If my kids’ Blackness scares you so bad that all you see is a thug in the making, then you don’t get to teach in schools with Black kids.
If my Blackness worries you as I shop in your store then you don’t get to take up store space drive up rents in Black business districts.
If you don’t like treating Black tenants with the same respect you show your non-Black tenants, then you don’t get to take tax breaks for housing Black people.
Now taking a stand like that comes with consequences. Anytime slaves revolt there are consequences.
But do we really have any other choice? We tried this integration thing and gave it all we got. It’s not working and they keep killing us to let us know that they don’t want to live with us or go to school with us. They only hire enough of us to avoid lawsuits & they don’t see us as human enough to stop killing ourselves.
Let’s ask ourselves. What is more difficult? Creating a world where we get to meet our own needs (Like. Every. Other. Healthy. Community. Does)? Or keeping hope alive that we can convince our version of Hitler to see us as more than scum on the bottom of its shoe?
If #BlackLivesMatter, then that means all of Blackness. Not just the kind that makes White folks comfortable enough to not punish us for it. We have to do what is necessary to make that so.
What do you think? Do you feel free enough to be fully Black in your workspaces? What happens if you don’t use your Make White People Comfortable Skill Set at work or in school? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.
Looking for more thoughts from an Afro State of Mind? Check out my book Afro State of Mind: Memories of a Nappy Headed Black Girl now available on Amazon.com in paper back or available here for e-book download! And if you want to stay connected follow me on Twitter, or Instagram “like” Afro State of Mind on Facebook or catch up on my latest youtube videos!