Not Somebody's Mom: Sandra Bland & Dismantling Who is Worth the Call for Justice

by Matlaleng Babatunde

When does a Black female victim of violence become worthy of empathy? Is it after she has been "humanized" by the mentioning of a family and by the realization that she could've been you, or is the fact that she is a person-- a Black woman, enough. For many on social media it seems to be the former. Thursday morning, as I scrolled through my Tumblr, I was overwhelmed with the lingering wave of anger, grief, and pain that I've become accustomed to this summer. Another hashtag, followed by the name of yet another Black person violated and killed at the hands of state sanctioned violence.

While I read posts about 28 year old Sandra Bland, I couldn't help but notice a familiar hook, "she could be somebody's mother" or "care because she could be you." As I read these posts and watched people shift the focus of our conversation from Sandra as a person to Sandra as somebody's mother, or sister, I was reminded of the misogyny that still pervades our society today. However, what struck me most was that many of these posts were not maliciously intended, in fact, most posts minimizing Bland's identity to her relationship to others were a desperate attempt to evoke empathy from bystanders who knew, either consciously or subconsciously, that a Black woman's death alone wouldn't be enough. After reading Sandra Bland's story I wasn't focused on whether she was a mother, or a wife, or a sister, I was focusing on this:

On July 10th, while driving through Texas, where she had relocated for her new job at Prairie View A&M University, Bland was pulled over by Texas authorities for an improper lane change, slammed violently to the ground, and ultimately arrested on charges of assaulting a public servant. Just three days later she was found dead in her jail cell by what Waller County Sheriff's office are claiming to be "self-inflicted asphyxiation". This information alone should be cause enough for us to care, but the reality is that, for many, Sandra Bland's worth must be put in the context of her worth to others to invoke acknowledgement.

As a Black woman I have become accustomed to hearing the stories of Black female victims of violence preceded by declarations of their worth to society. Last summer it was 16 year old rape survivor Jada whose identity was minimized to "somebody's sister or daughter" in attempt to rile up a call for justice. This year, I have witnessed this troubling practice repeat itself through responses to the injustices that Black female victims of violence like Marissa Alexander, Tanisha Anderson and now Sandra Bland faced. The fact or possibility that these women were "somebody's mother or sister" was centralized in much of the discourse surrounding their tragedies, as if to show that without proof of their labor in relationships, there would be no way for us to determine their value to us--to determine whether they're worthy of empathy.

As I read these stories I can't help but think that something is wrong with our conversations. For me it comes to this conclusion: if Sandra Bland, or any Black woman, being killed by those claiming to be her protectors isn't a tragic enough event for you to empathize-- if you have to put Bland's identity in the context of what her value was, or could have been, to yourself or a man, then you have already acquiesced to a system that deems Black women, at face value, worthless.

I am in no way contesting the fact that tragedy of Sandra Bland's death is inclusive of the void left in her family, but rather, asking, why does it matter what labor Bland did for others, or whether she could've been you or me? Why can't another Black woman being victim of state sanctioned violence be enough? The fact that violence on Black women is continuously wrapped in misogynistic sensationalism in order to gain visibility, has given me a better understanding of the need for the hashtag, #BlackWomenMatter. If we are to really and truly believe that #BlackWomenMatter we must make a concerted effort to not cater to the apathy of patriarchy. We cannot continue to perpetuate the idea that violence to Black women only matters when the victim is of value to a man. We must #SayHerName instead of saying what we decide her identity is in relation to other people.

I sincerely hope that we find answers and justice for Sandra Bland, and for all Black women who have been victims of violence. As we grieve and empathize with all those Black women who have been victims of all types of violence, state sanctioned or otherwise, I ask us all to not just care because she is somebody's mother-- care because she is somebody.

Photo: a katz / Shutterstock

Matlaleng Babatunde is a full time awkward Black girl, poet and student at Brown University. She hopes to cultivate spaces of Black sisterhood and healing in the midst of the struggle for liberation. Her blog is, and you can tweet her via @Matlalenggg.

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