Can you look at someone and tell if they are suicidal? That question, asked by TheRoot.com writer Kirsten West Savali, caused me to pause. The answer is obviously no, but how often do we judge a person’s mental state or motive based on nothing more than physical appearance.
Savali’s article focuses on the tragic death of young black woman, Sandra Bland, who mysteriously died in her jail cell after being arrested during a traffic stop. According to police, no one left or entered Bland’s room. Authorities say she hanged herself. But those who knew Bland say she would never do such a thing. A cell mate described her as “distraught.” Yet, she had a lot to live for. On the day she was arrested, Bland had interviewed for—and got—a new job that she really wanted. Her career was improving.
Investigators are still piecing together this puzzle, and there are arguments on both sides.
Savali writes: “In the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, the most vocal reason given for why she didn’t hang herself in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell after being brutalized and arrested by state Trooper Brian Encinia is this: Sandra, who was passionate about the sanctity of black lives; Sandra, beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, who had everything to live for, did not look like a woman who would kill herself, and therefore it’s ridiculous to even entertain the notion.
“The implication there is that something would have had to be visibly wrong with Sandra for suicide to be a possibility, and that’s a dangerous way to think. It perpetuates the stigma that black women who kill themselves are weak, and in too many of our communities, weakness in black women is not acceptable.”
Today, there is a plethora of strong black women that we can point to—Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, your own mothers and grandmothers. That does not mean, however that none of them have ever felt like they wanted to give up. And those who are not that strong deserve help.
There is a stigma within the African American community about mental illness that keeps too many of us from getting the help we need. While a person may not be suicidal, the day-to-day challenges of being a person of color can chip away at your self-esteem over time. Even the best of us can fall prey to periods of depression and disillusionment. And with no safe place to go, and not having the option to admit there is a problem, getting help is extra hard.
Bland’s death is shrouded in mystery and, given the volatile history of police and people of color in this country, foul play is entirely possible. But we cannot dismiss the possibility—however slight—that life became too much for Sandra.
When we make assumptions about people based on outer appearance, we unfairly judge them. The string of murders at the hands of police, which we see played out now almost daily, bears witness to that fact. Whether it’s a matter of a traffic stop or a person committing a petty crime, the image many white cops see of black people is negative and threatening. One look at a person with darker skin or kinky hair and the assumptions multiply. The cop decides the person is dangerous, mistrustful, law-breaking, etc. even before a word is exchanged.
Looking at a person and making generalizations based on looks, skin color, clothing, or any other superficial traits creates so much trouble, and as we have seen, gets people killed too. Justice and fairness can only exist when these stereotypes are challenged.
How do we really know if someone is dangerous, suicidal or just having a bad day? We won’t unless we have some history on them. And that is the problem with these police-civilian confrontations. There is no information available. It’s much easier to look at a person’s appearance and place them into a category that says they are either good, bad, or okay. It makes the cop’s job easier. It helps us to gauge how we will respond to others. Unfortunately, it also sends innocent people to an early grave and masks potential problems that hide behind a three-piece suit.
Sandra Bland is gone, and no amount of speculation will bring her back. I hope she did not take her own life. But we need to deal with the possibilities of suicide more honestly in the black community; we must get out of denial.