CW: mention of suicide, self-harm, trauma
“Equality does not look like a historically empowered group setting the terms of liberation for a historically disempowered group.” – Bree Newsome
While I remain highly skeptical of Sandra Bland’s death being completely free of foul play, I’ve asked myself as I’ve pored over news articles and opinion pieces – why does it seem like we mourn deaths by suicide less than deaths by murder? Especially suicides from people of color? Is this not all a reflection of a broken system that perpetuates deeply ingrained attitudes that a person of color’s life is inherently worth less? Biological factors aren’t the only components to suicide – oftentimes, and especially with people of color, we can’t separate environmental factors like negative experiences related to discrimination, lack of access to resources, and systems of oppression that makes certain groups of people feel they’re worth less starting from the day they’re born. I won’t rule out suicide as a cause of Sandra Bland’s death, but I will mourn her life at the same level I’ve mourned for lives forcefully taken – because if you think about it, isn’t it the same?
The story of Sandra Bland has been on my mind this whole month. I started hearing about it a few days before I turned 27 years old. Bland was only 28 years old. She was a college graduate, excited about new job prospects. She was pulled over by the police for failing to signal while driving – a minor violation that somehow escalated to allegedly assaulting a public servant (while she was slammed into the ground?), arrest, a $5,000 bail, and later being found dead in a jail cell. There were so many suspicious components related to Bland’s death, ranging from “technical issues” with video footage, to Bland herself – someone who didn’t seem like the type to take her own life, especially with so much to live for. Media outlets dug up information on her past history of drug use and other violations – an attempt at victim-blaming a college-educated Black woman with knowledge of civil rights and social activism. Some media outlets mentioned her past history of depression and self-harm in passing, while others capitalized on it, implying that her death was largely a result of mental illness.
As I’ve mentioned before, I remain highly skeptical of how Sandra Bland died, but I feel that fixating on the “how” detracts from the important, unending question of “why?” Why do these patterns continue? Why are we not recognizing broken systems that intrinsically view people of color as guilty until proven innocent? Even if a person of color doesn’t lose their life on the street at the hands of police (or racist neighborhood watch volunteers), there’s still a high possibility of dying in jail cells, or dying by suicide in post-jail or prison attempts to cope with the trauma experienced. I’m reminded of reading about Kalief Browder just last month – a young man (only 22 years old) who died by suicide after a year of trying to assimilate back home after three years at Riker’s Island with no crime conviction. I read about his horrific jail experiences and his attempts to kill himself while there – experiences that continued to haunt him even when he returned home, had a full support system, and what seemed to be a bright future that would never be fulfilled as he hung himself for the last time at his family’s home. Reading about Kalief Browder’s death by suicide and Sandra Bland’s autopsy report isn’t only tragic – it’s an injustice. It’s a manifestation of broken systems that prevent so many young people of color from realizing and actualizing their worth and potential because their lives end so soon.
So many young lives lost.
One last question – why does this apply to me? I immigrated here from another country. As a person of color I continue to observe (and sometimes experience) situations that reaffirm that most, if not all, systems work better for people that aren’t like me or other minorities. I grew up in an environment that didn’t always acknowledge things like depression, self-harm or suicide because there was even more shame and stigma attached – it felt like one more thing in a big pile of worries, something filed away in the back because my main concern was trying to keep myself together and prove naysayers wrong. I also grew up in not-so-great neighborhoods where it wasn’t always safe to go outside – not just because of people possibly committing crimes, but because at an early age I observed and was taught that law enforcement isn’t always your friend. You can be at the wrong place at the wrong time – people might call the police on you if you look “suspicious” (even if you’re just walking home from school), and don’t even think about doing anything that might seem antagonistic or combative. When I read about young people of color losing their lives, I sometimes catastrophize what could possibly happen to me, even though I’m now fortunate enough to live and work in better neighborhoods than the ones I grew up in (though I know this isn’t immunization from racial profiling.) I also know that the weight of fear that I feel at times is just a tiny fraction of what many people in the Black community feel all the time.
I don’t know how to fix broken systems, but the most I can do now is recognize them and call them out. For people on the receiving end of these broken systems – know that your life has value. Sometimes all we can do is hope for something better, but there’s still power in being aware and knowing what to hope for.