Sandra Bland: Race, Gender, and the Politics of “Sass”
By Mitzi J. Smith, PhD
Many people applauded The Daily Beast photo of the twenty-something year old white female protester who stood toe to toe with a New York City cop defiantly screaming into his face and daring him to arrest her. The white male cop remained stoic and motionless.
That is quite a contrast to Sandra Bland’s experience with a white male Texas trooper. Sandra, the twenty-eight year old black woman who was subjected to a violent encounter with a Texas trooper and later died while in custody, was criticized and demonized by some for having the nerve to ask questions and to talk back to or to “sass” (as the old folks called it). Ironically, Sandra understood that her “purpose” was to return to “Texas and stop all the injustices against blacks.” She should be remembered, her mother stated, as an “activist, sassy, smart, and she knew her rights.” Unfortunately, sassy and smart black women are not a cherished or celebrated breed when racism and sexism interconnect and prevail.
I describe myself as a womanist, practicing womanism, because it prioritizes black women’s experiences and lives. Womanism does not treat black women and their concerns as a theoretical addendum or critically provoked afterthought. Had Sandra Bland had the chance, I believe she would have embraced womanism; in some respects she was a womanist. As Alice Walker defined the term in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), Sandra behaved courageously and willfully; she was serious, committed to the survival of the black community, loved the struggle, the folk and herself, regardless. Sandra Bland acted womanish on July 10, 2015.
Prior to July 10, Sandra, also known as #SandySpeaks, protested the senseless and deadly police brutality targeted at black males.
She once tweeted, “AT FIRST THEY USED A NOOSE, NOW ALL THEY DO IS SHOOT #BlackLivesMatter.” Some would call this “sassing” or talking back to systems and people who say or demonstrate otherwise—that Black lives don’t matter. Unfortunately, “the noose,” about which Sandra spoke, was historically used for and became a symbol for the lynching of black people (and others, particularly their white allies), and remains to some degree an instrument of terror and death. The abuse and illegal arrest of Sandra Blandand subsequent attempts by Trooper Encinia and his department to cover up the “truth”, at the very least precipitated her untimely and unnecessary death and at most constitutes a modern-day lynching (with a plastic bag and a large quantity of marijuana while in custody?!!). Sandra would be alive today had Trooper Encinia not singled her out for harassment.
Sandra stood in the tradition of proto-womanists like Ida Wells Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks and other activists. However, she did not choose to be memorialized in a similar tragic fashion with Emmett Till, Miriam Carey, Natasha McKenna, Yvette Smith, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Kindra Chapman and so many others. People who cower, retreat or remain silent in the face of their own oppression seldom advocate boldly for others. Some people have stated that Sandra would be alive if she had not “mouthed off” or sassed and acted arrogantly toward the Trooper. The implication is that black women’s lives can be supported, celebrate and preserved, most or only when they are silent, submissive, and invisible, regardless. Where racism and sexism intersect there is no such thing as a black woman asserting her right to speak and raise questions; there’s just arrogance and “sass.”
Women continue to be taught that they are to be good “foot stools” for men. When a woman “acts up” or refuses to be that foot stool, a “biblically” submissive woman, then she deserves any violence inflicted upon her. Too many women remain shackled to this type of thinking and so they do all they can to be “good girls” (I even heard a female minister not long ago at a breast cancer event promoting the book she wrote about how women can be little girls again and thus become good marriage material), always submissive to male authority and abuse. And sass or back talk (talk back) are certainly not the qualities of submission. The black feminist scholar bell hooks (Talking Back, 5) defines “back talk” or “talking back” as “speaking as an equal to an authority figure…daring to disagree… having an opinion.”
The story of the Syrophoenician woman at Mark 7:24-30 (//Matt. 15:21-28) provides an antithesis to the silent submissive woman who does not talk back or sass male authority figures, regardless. That story can assist in constructing a more empowering and freeing theology of sass that demonstrates the impact and value of women’s talk back/back talk. The Syrophoenician woman bowed and begged for Jesus’ attention and help. But Jesus responded to her deference, her submission with the following words: “Permit the children to be fed first, for it is not good (kalos) to take the bread from the children and to throw it to the dogs,” 7:27 (my translation). Jesus responded to her in a way that betrayed his Jewish male bias and that would result in her being denied the healing he had so freely given to others, so she talked back: “she answered and said to him, ‘Master even the dogs under the table eat from crumbs that the children drop’,” 7:28 (my translation); the dogs don’t have to wait until the children are fed first. The Syrophoenician woman did not let the differences in their ethnicity or status, Jesus’ reputation as a healer, or any stigma associated with her having a daughter possessed by an unclean spirit hinder her from talking back to Jesus. She questioned Jesus and the authoritative tradition he quoted that could have stopped her in her tracks and denied her daughter the healing she sought and needed, which he had so freely given to his own people. Jesus had no right to treat her as less than a dog. Her life and her daughter’s life mattered at least as much as the “dogs under the table.” And her sass or talk back mattered, tugging at, tapping into Jesus’ humanity and compassion. She was an advocate and an activist for her child and for other mothers and their children who could be denied fair treatment and wholeness based on biased traditions and Rabbis who might not otherwise question those traditions. The Syrophoenician mother challenged what Jesus labeled good or fair (kalos), 7:27. That is what sass does; it challenges those systems, traditions and people that are neither just nor moral, but deleterious and deadly.
For sure, sass and talk back can have the opposite effect when the person to whom it is directed has more regard for unjust traditions or for his own ego and authority than for human freedom and life, as in the case of Sandra Bland and others. Yet, talk back or sass cannot be a laudable and valued trait only when practiced by white women and men. Illegal detainment, a trooper’s wrath, or death cannot be an acceptable response to a black woman’s sass. When we justify violence against a black woman because she talked back to a trooper, we are complicit with and appease the racist patriarchal god of female submission.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman shows that the power of sass is that it can call our attention to unjust, biased, and oppressive traditions, laws, and expectations. The power of sass is that it can reveal and question the destructive forces at work in or against our communities. Too often when many women of color have sassed or talked back, confronting unfair practices, biased policies, racist behaviors that they have witnessed or experience in church, society or the academy, they have been labeled as trouble makers, castigated, marginalized, and even black-balled by men as well as by their sister feminists and womanists. This practice of silencing the sass of women of color hinders womanism/feminism from being the political and self-critical movement it is meant to be. We need to celebrate sass and talk back in women of color as well as in white women as a legitimate form of agency and method of truth telling rather than punishing women for speaking truth boldly in the face of corrupt, biased, life-threatening and denying authority. Sass and talk back are legitimate forms of resisting oppression and exploitation. It is the language of black women seeking to expose their exploitation and to dismantle the master’s house built from and on the sands of racism, class, sexism, and domination generally. We must celebrate all sassy sisters.
It seems that on July 10, 2015, it was particularly offensive, for Trooper Encinia, a white male cop that Sandra Bland dared to admit, even calmly and when asked, that she was irritated. It was offensive to Trooper Encinia that Sandra dared to ask why she had been pulled over, why she should stop smoking in her own vehicle, and why she should exit her vehicle without cause. Many men have “lit up” women for daring to talk back or sass. It seems that for a black woman to speak her mind was doubly troubling to this white male officer; the white female officer who later arrived on the scene supported her white male colleague, regardless. This consorting among white men and women in their white privilege, power, and authority, is one reason that white feminists who argue that feminism is only about gender and not race are dead wrong. Black women experience race, gender, and class as interlocking forms of oppression.
When Trooper Encinia threatened to “remove” Sandra from her vehicle and to “light her up,” she stepped out of her car. The trooper, with the Taser in his hand and pointed at Sandra’s body, forced her out of the path of the dashcam. The trooper, out of range of the dashcam, delivered on his promise to “light her up”. But Sandra, the activist, in her agony, collected her wits long enough to describe out loud the physical abuse being inflicted upon her. A bystander stopped to witness and record the abuse. Sandra, the sassy and smart activist, thanked the man for filming the abuse. The trooper tells the man with the camera that he needs to leave. From the sound of the man’s voice, it appears that he too is a white male. The civilian responds to the white male trooper, asking why he needs to leave and isn’t he on public property. But his questions do not provoke the same kind of abuse as Sandra’s did. Where racism and sexism intersect, any perceived challenge to white privilege and authority by black females is an intolerable tone. The audacity of black women to ask certain questions, to speak certain truths, to resist their own oppression is an unwelcome, insufferable, odious tone to those who expect and demand their unwavering subordination and silence. We are supposed to be well past those days when black people were to be seen, and not heard, like children. Black people had to feign ignorance. Unfortunately, those days are far from over.
I travel alone for long distances relatively often. I am black and female. And on some days I am “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and I might just be courageous enough to assert my right to know, to be sassy, if I should be stopped by a cop. And that cop might be like Trooper Encinia. He might refuse to tell me why I am being stopped and yet expect my full unmitigated compliance. Or I might comply but be bullied and provoked–everyone, most people, have a breaking point. Like other black women and men in this country, my life could be cut short by one trivial, unnecessary encounter with the wrong police officer. Black people’s fears are real. Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and many others, in marked and unmarked graves were real people who are mourned and missed by family and friends. For some it won’t be real, the fear, the facts, until it happens to them or to someone they know. But now is past time to name and oppose this insidious brutality of people of color, women and men and demand “never again.” Each time the nation denies that #BlackLivesMatter, that #BlackWomensLivesMatter by its failure to do or seek justice for black and brown victims of police brutality, it feeds a festering sore. #SayHerName #BlackWomensLivesMatter #SandraBland #SassIsResistance
Dr. Mitzi J. Smith is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary/Detroit. Her latest edited book is I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader. Her website is www.mitzijsmith.com.