I said her name and it sat there in the air between us, met with nary a hint of recognition.
I was talking to one of my closest and most cherished friends in the world, and it became clear that almost two weeks after news of her inexplicable death broke, he was completely unaware of the incident.
I felt a surge of emotion crop up and electrify the already emotional response I have to thinking about Sandra Bland, to saying her name, even to typing it out right now. I suppressed it. Pushed it to the way back of my mind, and carried on the conversation.
I had brought the despicable incident up in the first place because my friend works in the visual arts and I wanted to ask him about that “mugshot.” Many of us have questioned and scrutinized and hypothesized about the initial images released to the public, and the idea that she might have been laying down or possibly even already dead in the widely circulated picture was being debated all over my social media feeds.
(Video was subsequently released allegedly disputing this, but we were also fed doctored dashcam footage, so the hypotheses continue.)
In fact, #SandraBland had been dominating my social media consumption since her untimely death. And yet, here was my friend; my intelligent, successful, socially aware, enlightened friend, surprised to learn that this terrible thing had happened.
He’s white, I thought. This is what it’s like to be white.
That’s the thought that I immediately swatted away, as soon as it came bubbling to the surface. It felt dismissive and rude. Perhaps even bigoted. Definitely reductive, and most certainly insulting. My friend grabbed his iPad and got to Googling, emitting groans at each link he clicked on. I told him my perspective, asked some specific questions about Photoshop and gravity and shadows and light, he gave me his professionally informed opinion, and we moved on to another topic.
How could you not have heard about this?, I thought. How is it that I am the one to tell you, and after all this time has passed?
But we had moved on to another topic.
In the days since that conversation, I’ve sat with that nasty feeling and done my best to parse it. I certainly don’t blame my friend for being white, or for living his life in a way that didn’t include awareness of this particular tragic death in Texas. And yet, I couldn’t deny my reaction.
This horror, this scenario that I’ve envisioned in my nightmares and obsessed over during my waking hours, was simply not in his sphere of awareness. It would be one thing if I alone were obsessed, or were part of a fringe group who took a particular interest in this occurrence. On the contrary, my online Black community could speak of little else, mainstream media (prodded by aforementioned online influence, of course) was covering it, hell—even Kim Kardashian joined the conversation, blessing the timeline with a rare Konscious Kardashian tweet declaring Sandra Bland’s death a “#MassiveCoverUp.”
Also, I’m not talking about a racist, a non-sophisticate, or a fool. He had not just returned from being locked away in a sensory-deprivation hut, nor is he a well-intentioned “ally” who’s really just a self-serving ignoramus. He. Just. Didn’t. Know.
I was reminded of the song “Easy to be Hard,” from one of my favorite musicals, Hair, which I’ve performed in multiple productions of. The lyrics, by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, say in part:
How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be hard, easy to be cold…
Especially people who care about strangers, who care about evil and social injustice….
Of course the context of the song within the show is not a conversation about Sandra Bland, but I sang it quietly to soothe myself and it helped me understand why I was so thrown by his lack of knowledge of the case.
It was “easy.” Not unlike the character about whom this song is sung, he wasn’t intentionally being heartless or cruel, but the ease with which he said he hadn’t heard was so simple and casual in its honesty that it felt like a kick to my gut.
Here I am, here we are, collectively mourning and wailing and fearful that we could be next. In fact, part of why I didn’t indulge this lightning bolt of pain on top of pain sooner was because news of 18-year old Kindra Chapman’s death, under similar circumstances to Sandra Bland’s, was made public almost immediately after we learned of her atrocity in Texas. And then Joyce Curnell was found dead in a jail cell, Ralkina Jones also died mysteriously within days after being taken into police custody, and on Monday, Raynette Turner became the fifth black woman to die after being taken into police custody in a two-week period.
I can’t process such inexplicable loss of lives of faces that look like mine, let alone feel capable of a measured response to my friend’s lack of response. I was literally singing to myself to stay calm.
The song “Easy to be Hard” emphasizes context and character, and questioning that is why I struggled. I know there are racists out there, as well as the passively prejudiced and the casually indifferent who neither seek out nor engage with stories of another dead Black body. I know there are people who wish us no ill will but wish us no prosperity either, for whom our struggles and injustices and murders in the street are simply a non-factor, never even popping up on their radar.
But I would never be friends with such a person, let alone call them “one of my closest and most cherished friends in the world,” as I did above. This was my dude. I staggered down a dark memory lane of all the times I had explained what Kanye was mad about this week or translated “on fleek,” and I felt a bit sick. Had we reached an insurmountable point of racial disconnect?
I don’t think so, but I honestly don’t know. As of this writing, I have yet to bring it up again. I wanted to understand better why it burns so much, and it is because I don’t see a clear course toward resolution. This is not like the pit-in-your-stomach feeling of an ain’t shit boyfriend does you wrong again and you know you have to break up with him but can’t quite see how. This is not a clueless co-worker who says something ignorant in a meeting.
I have no intention of cutting ties with my friend. There is no major action to be taken, just a series of smaller actions, beginning with me speaking up if this sort of thing should happen again. It is a manifestation of privilege to be able to log on to social media and not see the death report of someone who looks like you at any given moment. It might just feel like business as usual to those who enjoy that privilege, which is why many rebuke the P-word altogether.
They never even considered it; how could they be operating within and in fact benefitting from White Privilege? The people who resist the truth of Privilege and posit such questions feel legitimate in their inquiry because in a world where we constantly compare paychecks and skin color and scholarships and such, it’s difficult for them to comprehend that you could be benefitting from what you don’t have, what you don’t fear, what you don’t even know about.
It’s not my job to be this friend’s racial injustic educator, and he already knows that #BlackLivesMatter. But if even one of our lives being lost in such an unjust way, involving the evil of the law, could skirt his awareness so thoroughly, he’s not as woke as I would hope and it’s OK that I was upset by that.
Would it have been more palatable to me if he had wrung his hands and apologized profusely and prostrated himself on the floor in agonized atonement? No, I don’t think so. It was easy for him to say because it was simple for it to have happened, and that’s the ugly truth of it.
We’re just gonna have to sit in this ugliness for a while and name it before we can move forward. All of us. People who claim to care will have to care more actively and seek out information more diligently, because for many, it’s too easy not to know.
It’s easy to be hard.