Berkeley Talks transcript: #SandraBlandMystery: Aaminah Norris on the transmedia story of police brutality

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Today I’m going to be speaking with Aaminah Norris, who is an assistant professor at Sacramento State in the College of Education. Aaminah has more than 20 years of experience supporting schools and not-for-profit organizations in addressing issues of educational equity for low income students from historically marginalized communities. Her background in education includes teaching, administration, and curriculum development for thousands of students in grades K through 16.

She researches, teaches, and advocates use of digital and social media in formal and informal learning environments to address racial and gender inequities. She also happens to be one of my former students. Welcome, Aaminah, it’s so good to have the chance to talk with you today.

AAMINAH NORRIS: Thank you so much, Gail. I’m so excited to be here. Absolutely.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Great. For this module, which is called African Americans on TV and Social Media, I assigned an essay that you co-authored with Nalia Rodriguez, and I’m so sorry Nalia couldn’t join us today, but I know that you will represent both of your work very well. The title of your essay is "#Sandra Bland’s Mystery, a Transmedia Story of Police Brutality.”

And I assigned your essay in conjunction with another essay by Amanda D. Clark, Prentiss A. Dantzler, and Ashley E. Nickels called Black Lives Matter, Reframing the Next Wave of Black Liberation. And I lectured on that essay separately in this module. That essay also mentions #SayHerName, and I think that your and Nalia’s essay complements that essay very well and goes into much more detail about the Say Her Name campaign. So can I please ask you to recount the main points of your essay?

AAMINAH NORRIS: Sure. And so let me begin by talking about my relationship to Nalia and how we actually began thinking about conceiving of this. So Nalia was actually one of my undergraduate students here at Berkeley when I was a graduate student. I was teaching a course called Race, Gender, and Culture and Urban Education. And she was taking that course.

And I began to sort of think about how it is that race is considered online. And how, in particular– gender also– so the intersectional issues that happen online. And so we started following hashtags in the class. And one of them that Nalia was following was #BlackLivesMatter and then #HandsUpDon’tShoot.

And after I graduated, and she remained– we remained in contact. And we thought– we started also then following #SayHerName which was began in 2015. And at that point, we realized when we did some more investigation into Say Her Name that it was actually a campaign that was taking place. That it was actually happening not only on social media, but actually in real life.

So there was like, offline activism that was happening– marches, protests– to bring attention to women who had been victimized as a result of police brutality, and specifically to make a note of the fact that it was women of color. That their race, their nationality, their gender, their sexuality mattered. And that was not– that was separate from and distinct from what was happening with Black Lives Matter, which is sort of an all encompassing hashtag, but it’s also a hashtag that when we think of it, we also think of black males who are victims of police brutality.

So we then began to follow the #SayHerName hashtag, and began to start a process of digital ethnography where we started to actually begin to collect response. So when something came out in the hashtag we would look at who was responding to it, who was on Twitter saying things, what posts were being used. And subsequently, we noticed that a few months after the #SayHerName hashtag came out, Sandra Bland, who was an activist and for the Black Lives Matter movement, she was actually traveling to Texas.

She had decided to relocate there for school. And she was driving, and she was pulled over by a police officer for a failure to use her turn signal. And, unfortunately, three days after her arrest, she was found dead in her jail cell. So a hashtag, then, #SandraBland arose.

And then we also started following that hashtag to see what was being said. What we wound up uncovering was that the story of Sandra Bland’s life, and subsequent death, were being transmediated. And so, transmedia– actually, when I was taking your courses, that was something that I thought about in terms of fictionality, right? But it is the idea of how a story could be told over multiple platforms in a fictional way.

And, you know, Harry Potter, and these things come to mind when we think about transmedia and Henry Jenkins’ work. Because when he theorizes, he was mostly talking about fiction. But for the purposes of our work, we started thinking, can this actually be happening for nonfiction? Does this happen in nonfiction? And so we actually found some researchers who began to kind of extend the theory to the nonfictional space.

And talk about how it is the difference between– because when Henry Jenkins talks about transmedia, he talks about it from this idea of convergence, like all of these different folks come together to tell a story, right? And there’s some very rich power in that. But when we think about transmedia for nonfiction, what we see, and what we found in this case, was actually divergence.

Where, OK, yes, the African American Policy Forum, when they started this Say Her Name campaign, they had a specific idea about how it was that black women should be represented online and offline. And how we needed to make sure that people were aware that because of who they are, they are being victimized as a result of police brutality against them.

However, when we read the responses in the post, what we found were that everyone wasn’t in agreement with that idea. And in fact, there were folks who said, no, you know, these women are criminals. The police are being wrongfully accused of this. Was it a suicide? Was she victimized? What happened? And so there was no answer.

So what Nalia and I uncovered was this is actually a mystery. There’s no complete answer to this story. And that’s painful because actually we want to be able to have closure and understanding. But in this case, and especially when the story is being told by different users across these platforms, when they’re diverging on their ideas about it, then what ends up happening is there is a lack of clarity.

So then what we start started searching for was, where is the clarity coming in? Who is bringing clarity, and what storytellers are actually doing that? And so those storytellers we named messengers. We said, OK, these are the people who are keeping the blueprint that was set out by AAPF, the African American Policy Forum.

They’re keeping that, and they’re telling the story. They’re being able to be clear about this is police brutality. This is as a result of the race and gender of these women, and this is something that we feel very sad about. The death of Sandra Bland in particular. And we recognize that she only died because she was a black woman at the hands of the police.

And then at the end of that, the other people that would basically bring clarity, we named resolvers. So because when there was all of this divergence at the end of the story, there will be people that will be like, no, you know, let’s get back to the reality. The reality is this is because they’re black. This is because they’re women. This is what’s happening. We agree with what AAPF is saying.

So you have these sort of bookends, right? The messengers and the resolvers. And in the middle you have what we named derailers. And so these are people who, if we have a message that is on a track, and we’re trying to basically tell this story on a track, and they would take us off the rails, because they are bringing in different hypothesis about what happened.

And in a lot of cases, in most of the cases, these people were blaming Sandra Bland for her own death. They were naming her a criminal. And they were also saying that anyone who says anything against that is actually being racist. Because, like, how are you going to make a claim about someone based on their race if you’re not being racist?

And then, the people that were sort of ambivalent, we named those people fragmenters. So fragmenters are folks who, they do feel some sympathy for the death of Sandra Bland, but at the end of the day they also– some of the statements, they may criminalize her and other black women who are victims of police brutality. And they are not keeping the story clear with the blueprint the AAPF set out.

So those are sort of the four categories that we came up with, which we noticed. It was a way to understand how it was that folks were telling the story. And it also brought, from my understanding of transmedia, it really did bring real clarity in terms of what the possibilities of it are. Is’ Possibilities are. And then also, as a storyteller, someone who is involved in communicating online, what is my role then?

And being able to sort of do this analysis of what people are saying, and what the underlying meaning of that is, that has a lot of weight. So when people say something online, we think, oh, you know, that’s just virtual reality. That’s not real. That’s not reality. But when we’re talking about someone who actually– whose life is being told, and their death is being told, what more reality can you get than that?

There is this fear that kind of underlies this work of becoming a hashtag, right? What does that mean, like, to actually have your whole life become– you know, you lose control of your story in that way. The story of your life. So then it becomes incumbent upon those of us who are using social media to think about our responsibility in being those messengers who say, this is who this woman was, and to give more strength to the story. And to help keep it on track as much as possible with understanding that it can be derailed, and that there are people who will do that.

And since we’ve become more accustomed to these processes of telling stories or learning about people’s lives and pass on using hashtags, I think this work is really important. Because the hope is that it will bring some sense of responsibility to people who are online. And so they can understand what it is that the weight of what they’re doing as they’re posting.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Thank you so much. I think this is such an important essay. And I think it is so valuable to understanding how not just #SayHerName works as an online campaign, and an example of hashtag activism, but also just how social media use works in general, far beyond this one campaign. So you identify the AAPF as a group that transmediated one story about Sandra Bland, which was that she was an example of the way that police profile African American women. And then you argue that there were four kinds of users, as you said.

Messengers, who reinforced the AAPF’s narrative. Derailers, who told a very different story depicting Sandra Bland as a criminal. Fragmenters, who did express sadness over Bland’s passing, but also refused to place any blame on police or law enforcement. And resolvers, who would reply directly to derailers’ posts to counter them and to reinforce the AAPF story.

Have you seen other news stories where these four types of users are active? And do you think that most social media responses to news stories today can be categorized as one of these four types of responders?

AAMINAH NORRIS: Yeah. So, what I’ve been able to do is look at the difference between how these roles play out either on Facebook and on Twitter. And so, as with the Sandra Bland story, we saw it was transmediated. But a lot of times what may happen is that a story may not be transmediated. It may just exist on one specific platform.

And on Twitter, what we noticed with Sandra Bland, was there was more messengers. There were people who were retweeting what AAPF would say, or a story that would come out that would say, you know, find fault with the police. People would retweet that or they would like that.

And very similarly– or differently– when it came to Facebook, people spend a lot more time on Facebook kind of providing their input into a story. So when it came to looking at stories that were told online, for the most part what I’ve been doing is looking a lot more at other women who have been victims.

So Korryn Gaines’ story is a story that I’ve seen. And her name really resonated with me, Korryn, as a name that I always liked. And I always was like, wow, that name sounds like water. It’s just so peaceful. It’s just a beautiful name.

And the first time I heard it was associated with a hashtag. So I automatically knew that this person, with this beautiful name, her story is being told in a way that could be harmful, and painful, and sad because of that loss. And so I did notice.

And I think there are definitely– I mean, because I think what happens is that people focus on trolls. So they’re like, oh, they’re trolling. You know, oh, if you say something and someone says something different, then that’s the automatic terminology. So what I’ve noticed is that no, it’s not necessarily trolling. I mean, it is. But in terms of what they’re actually doing with it.

What is the purpose of it? The purpose of it is to derail a message. The purpose of it is to provide some fragmentation to a message. So yes, that happens, especially in the era of Trump. Yeah.

There are a lot of different stories that come out about Russia or family separation policy. And when people are trying to basically say like, no, family should stay together, and this is the reality of what’s happening at our borders, then someone is like, no. I’m going to derail that message. I’m going to provide you a different alternative to that story.

Or I’m going to say, yeah, family should stay together. But we should also– we need border security, which is a fragmentation. So there is definitely– I’ve seen this play out. And it’s caused me to be much more alert in terms of, again, my role as well.

One of the things that came about as we were writing this was the notion of whether or not we should contact– like use real names– because when we did the digital ethnography, we were able to look at and find out people’s profiles, right? And so when you post online, depending on how it is that you have your profile, maybe it’s public, maybe it’s not.

If it’s not a public profile, then a lot of times it might just be the name that you’re using with your avatar, if you have an avatar photo that’s there. And then sometimes your gender, sometimes not. Sometime your occupation, sometimes not. But definitely the amount of people who follow you. And a lot of times people will put a location of where they’re from.

But if I post someone’s profile, then anyone else can– like if I put that in the text– anyone else could actually go and find that person. And especially if they’re saying something that is derailing or fragmenting, then possibly it would be difficult for that person. You know, the responses that they may get when people notice. So we had sort of this ethical question, right, that we were grappling with.

Like, here are these people, and they’re saying these things that– some of them are very nasty things– that they’re saying about someone like Sandra Bland. And they’re saying it publicly, right? They’re posting and they’re putting it out there. But do we, then, as the researchers and the authors, do we then sort of say, OK, let’s continue this process of going back and forth by putting your name in our paper?

So Nalia actually wanted to– her and Nisha, we kind of were discussing it. And she suggested that we contact them. And that was an option to say like, hey, we are thinking about this, we’re writing this paper. Would you be open to giving us permission to use your profile in our paper?

And I was very hesitant to do that, particularly when it came to the derailers, because of the fact of what it was that they were actually saying, and the ways in which that I identify with these women. Because we share the same characteristics racially, ethnically, and then also gender. We do. And so because of that, that makes me feel very hesitant to then reach out to somebody who is criminalizing us and hateful of us.

So I didn’t want to do it. So what we compromised was that we would give them pseudonyms. So we gave pseudonyms to these people. And once I said– you know, I was honest with her, she’s my co-author, but I was like, you know, this is where my fear comes in, and I don’t know if I can do it.

And that’s another reason why, when I even do this research, it’s hard. Like sometimes you have to kind of really step back because of the fact that these stories– these are real women. A lot of time– like Korryn. She was a mom. You know, there’s things that you can just really break your heart, like when you read about and learn about how these women died in such horrific ways.

And so wanting to then be able to understand our role, then, in sharing the stories and being clear about it. And also understanding how it is that users are telling these stories, and their responsibility. Because a lot of times I think people just want likes or retweets, you know, popularity.

And so we– I was– you know, Nipsey Hussle recently was shot and killed. He was a rapper in Los Angeles. And he’s somebody who has a lot of respect from the community. Not only the black community, but, you know, just Los Angeles community and across the world, and most definitely in the hip hop world.

And there’s people who were– because his girlfriend, the mother of his children had– she was going into a hospital. And she was like, you know, really upset. And people were videotaping her through this and posting it on Twitter, on social media. Like, her pain for the purpose of likes and retweets. And so there becomes this notion of the resp onsibility and the glamor that comes in with something like Twitter or something like people following you.

And we noticed that a lot of the derailers, actually, yeah. They got a lot. And maybe they didn’t have that many followers. But once they put something out there that was derailing, they got more followers. Or they got more attention, or more likes, and so on. And so, sometimes that is one of the dangers in social media also. Because of the need for attention that people will do things that are unethical as well.

And so to answer your question, yes. Yes, I do see– I definitely see it. It’s prevalent. Yeah.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Some people call the kind of celebrity that not-famous people get on social media– so just ordinary users of social media, not actors or singers– they call that a kind of micro celebrity. And so you’re talking about, what will people do to gain some micro celebrity? And they might go to great lengths or behave kind of irresponsibly in a social or civic way.

I also want to think about what you said about derailers and the kinds of messages they’re putting out, especially in cases of black women being victimized by violence. Because it occurs to me on the one hand, you might say there, I’m sure that some of the posts that you saw were extreme, as you said, full of hateful speech. Maybe standing out in that way, maybe they were able to get attention because of how extreme they were being in their language online.

And on the other hand, I’m sure some of the derailers’ messages were quite unfortunately commonplace in the sense that they were repeating the racial profiling logics that the Say Her Name campaign was actually designed to bring to light in the first place. So the message of the Say Her Name campaign, among many messages, but one of the central ones is that African American women are racially profiled by police in everyday life as they go about their everyday tasks; driving to get from one town to another.

And they are profiled, meaning that they’re selected out, because of the intersection of racial and gender identities. They are black women, and that means that law enforcement considers them a certain way, treats them a certain way, suspects them. They’re suspicious automatically.

And there are ways that derailers probably get attention by reinforcing what is, sadly, a really pervasive message in this society. And repeating that racial profiling, which in itself must feel really harmful to a lot of people when they log into Facebook or Twitter and just see a similar kind of move being made against their group that was made against Sandra Bland. And was made against all of the victims that Say Her Name is trying to bring into the public consciousness.

AAMINAH NORRIS: Yeah. So one of the things that is very true is that it’s not just black women who are surveilled and who are targeted by police, but also black girls. And that happens in schools. And so what my work actually has morphed into as a result of this is also looking at the relationship between black girls and the ways in which they are portrayed in school, even starting in preschool.

You know, to be punished as a result of your identity. Black girls actually are the largest group in the school-to-prison-pipeline. There’s this phenomenon called push out, where black girls who, because of disciplinary practices in schools, are actually pushed out and forced out. So we see that what happens offline actually is mirrored online.

And so when we think about the ways in which images are portrayed online, and the person who comes to mind right now is Ilhan Omar who, for me, is a role model. Is this Sudanese woman who actually– Somalian, I’m sorry– she’s a Somalian woman who is the first Congresswoman from Minnesota who actually is in the freshman class for 2018. And just yesterday, the New York Post posted a picture of the Twin Towers and basically quoted something that Omar said to basically blame her for the Twin Towers.

And she has received death threats. So that is obviously the far extreme of something like this. But when we’re talking about the profiling to the point of brutality and then death, there’s like a– you can see a line with that, right. You can see a continuum with that. You can see a connection that is happening between the ways in which people’s images are being portrayed and then the ways in which that then affects them not only online, but also offline in their lives.

And so she has talked about how she has been threatened, her life has been threatened, as a result of the fact of who she is. And the responsibility of, again the folks– because it’s not just the media per se, like the New York Post. But then if you think about social media, and the pervasiveness of it, and the people who then take something and take a part of a message and then decide to expand upon it, to reaffirm it, to strengthen it. And when these messages are detrimental and harmful, and they also speak to your bias against a group, then what can potentially happen is danger.

And so a lot of the work that I do is about sort of helping people to understand that they have a responsibility to disrupt the media messages and not just consume. You can’t just be thoughtless consumers of these things that reinforce your bias against a group. And if you are doing that, then you can potentially be causing harm and danger.

So there is, even in a derailer who’s saying, like, you know, well this is a message that I’m getting. Or maybe I’m– I go to school with these people and, you know, I don’t want to go to school with these people because of the biases that they have. And so they’re just rearticulating something.

And in their mind this is what they believe. But the reality is that what you are believing, and what you’re thinking, you have a responsibility to have gained more information, to think about the impact of what you say, and what you do, and what you retweet online. The impact of what happens to people in their everyday lives offline.

And so my hope is that our essay will help people to begin to consider that and the weight of it. Because it’s very hefty when we think about the fact that people’s lives are at stake. And it’s not just a– I think when we think about a hashtag, it’s like it’s something that is so esoteric and so light. Like, OK, hashtag, who cares.

But if you think about like– so, my father, he passed away in 2017. And I was worried about, do I post on Facebook the fact that my dad died? You know. Do I do that? Right. And I know, because when I would see other people’s posts about death, it would just be a visceral reaction. I just didn’t like it. Not at all.

And we had an instance where someone– my aunt, my great aunt– she passed away. And somebody posted that. And then we hadn’t even announced it to the family. And so my dad’s death was actually posted by someone else before me, someone who knew him. And it was– I mean, it was they were trying to be thoughtful. But here, again, it’s like with a narrative, who’s putting it out there?

So here’s somebody who is saying, like, oh, you know, I know this person. He was a great person. He died. And I’m like, I’m his daughter. Like, he has children.

We are the ones who should be able to tell his story. And so therefore the responsibility becomes put upon us, especially when someone is trying to– in this case, I mean they’re trying to be a messenger. But you can’t be a messenger without an initial narrative.

You are creating your own message. And I didn’t want that message to be the message of my dad. I wanted it to be our story, like us, his children. So then I had to. I was forced to tell the story, you know, because I felt like if I don’t, then it’s going to be told–

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Without you.

AAMINAH NORRIS: Without me. Right.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: So you’re bringing up all of these great questions about who tells these stories. And the main intervention of Henry Jenkins theory of transmedia storytelling is to emphasize that today, with the affordances of digital networks and social media, a lot of people tell stories. A lot of people come together and collaborate, converge, as you say, to tell different aspects of a story.

And as you mentioned, Jenkins’ examples are from the world of fiction. And we might think of a franchise like Star Wars, or you mentioned Harry Potter, Marvel cinematic universe, where not only do many writers and actors embody those stories over many platforms like video games, movies, television series, web-based media, web videos, but also fans will jump in and they’ll tell their own versions of these characters in fan fiction, fan art, fan vids, fan commentary.

And so your essay brings forward that transmedia storytelling is also happening very much, very frequently, with real world events. With actual people, actual life and death, and events that really happen in our world. Not in a fictional world. And you are talking about the manyness, the multiplicity of voices and perspectives, points of view, that congregate online but tell different versions of real world stories, real world narratives.

Which is such a really important insight, I think, of your essay. And you’re emphasizing responsibility that, because we are all storytellers, we’re all transmedia storytellers when we jump into an online conversation. When we jump into a hashtag and we debate these important issues, these events that come into the public consciousness, that we have responsibilities as storytellers.

And one thing I’m learning from you in this conversation is that when we jump in as storytellers and we recognize our responsibility, we have to ask ourselves whose story is this really to tell? Who should be telling the story for the most part? Who should be the primary storytellers’ And then what should others be doing in that space? Because actually sometimes people don’t have to tell those stories. They should leave most of the speaking or most of the storytelling to the group that is mainly involved.

And then other times people should jump into a story to reinforce what that primary group– the story that the primary group is telling. So I think that you’re really helping to advance our thinking, our collective thinking, around how should we conceive of these moments when an event flashes up and becomes a part of our public discourse. And then we are all– or a lot of people are tempted to jump in as storytellers.

There’s sort of this moment of reflection and thoughtfulness that you are calling for before we jump in to just retweet or add some likes or add some reinforcement to a story. We should ask, whose story am I reinforcing right now? What is the purpose of my speech in this narrative? I think that’s really great.

AAMINAH NORRIS: I think of the resolvers more as allies, and the messengers as the core people who are telling the story. And in a lot of ways, those people have become– it has become more than just a group, a specific group, in a lot of cases. And we talk about how the difference between Black Twitter and Twitter at large, and this notion of like, as a person who is black on Twitter, am I part of Black Twitter or not? Right? And how does Black Twitter take on something? How did they take on #SayHerName, for example?

And in a lot of cases, black women who are on social media are going to be messengers of that story. But then you also have black men, and what is their role in that? Are they going to be resolvers’ Are they going to be derailers’ What are they going to do? Are they going to be people who continue to tell the message, and what is their responsibility? How are they reflecting?

A few years ago, I was a fellow for digital media and learning fellow. And they say, you know, you need to take charge of your online presence. So when you Google yourself, what comes out?

Now this is really interesting for undergrads because I think a lot of times they just post whatever, and they think it’s a, hey, you know. And then the only time that possibly people tell them to think about this is like, if you’re going for a job, you need to be understanding that people are going to Google you and things of that nature.

However, what I’m hoping that people get from our essay is that it’s not just about your job thing. But if we’re talking about life or death and your involvement in telling or retelling someone’s story of their experience of life or death, like, how much more responsibility is that? What is your online presence with that?

Because if you– if folks see my tweets, and my tweets– like I’ve made my Twitter account public, and my Facebook account private. Because this is one way in which I feel like when I’m on Facebook, I only– I have a group that I call my Facebook family. And I really consider them as my family, so I will share things that are personal.

Pictures of my family, my own children, and husband, and extended family, and you know, we will share things of that nature. And I will share my feelings about something more in-depth on Facebook. So that’s private. My profile is private.

And on Twitter, it’s not. Because Twitter is my place to, really, for my purposes, like, OK, this is where I am going to have a presence. But then it’s more of a public presence. And sharing my thoughts or my retweet is sort of like my acknowledgment of, yeah, I agree with that. That’s a good point.

And my daughter, like whenever we’re talking and someone says something that she agrees with she’ll go, "retweet.”

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Just verbally.

AAMINAH NORRIS: She does that verbally. She’ll say, retweet, retweet. So my mom was like, and I was explaining to her Twitter. So I was like, yeah, if you agree with someone, you retweet them. So I’m like, mom, what’s up? And she’s like, retweet!

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Is your daughter a teenager or younger?

AAMINAH NORRIS: She’s 19.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: 19.

AAMINAH NORRIS: Yeah. So she’s 19. She’s a sophomore in college. And you know she– but she does. And now she’ll be like, ooh, tea. So she– everything is either tea, or retweet.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Tea as in spilling the tea?

AAMINAH NORRIS: Like, ooh, that’s– but when she says tea, it’s also like, oh, you’re giving the truth. That’s tea.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Yeah, that’s right.

AAMINAH NORRIS: Yeah, that’s what that is. That’s not just– that’s tea. So my thing is for these young people, it’s like, OK, is this tea? Like what is this’ You know? What are you doing?

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: What are you doing to be thoughtful?

AAMINAH NORRIS: What is your responsibility, right? Is this like, you know– if you’re doing something– because if you’re out there videotaping someone’s pain for your own micro celebrity, that’s not tea. You know what I mean?

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: And that it’s so much more important to think about what you’re tweeting or what voices you’re amplifying when it comes to life and death than when you’re even looking for a job. As important as a job and a career are, life and death are much more important than that.

AAMINAH NORRIS: The ultimate, right? That is the ultimate because there is nothing else that we can do beyond our responsibility to someone once they– so in the Nipsey Hussle question it became this question of, he can not anymore, Sandra Bland, they can no longer advocate for themselves. Because they’re no longer with us to do that. So therefore it’s our responsibility to consider, how are we advocating for these people?

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Which is the goal of the Say Her Name campaign. And I want to just conclude by asking you to just say a little bit about that campaign and its goal of bringing attention to racial profiling, to police violence, but also to life, also to the lives of the victims. And these victims were real women who had full lives, and families, and responsibilities, and joys, and hobbies.

And I just wanted to ask about the power of even that phrase "Say Her Name.” Names like Rekia Boyd, names like Tanisha Anderson, like Korryn Gaines, who you mentioned, like Sandra Bland. That there’s such a power in just the phrasing of "say her name.” Say her name, that she was a person, and that a lot of the racial profiling of black women in this country is these stereotypes about black women and girls being angry, being prone to violent reactions, and being undereducated.

There was a whole dismissal of black women and girls. And that dismissal of their humanity can have, as you’re saying, really terrible, really grievous, and the worst outcome, death itself. And so I just wanted to hear you talk about the aspect of Say Her Name that is about life and honoring people’s lives.

AAMINAH NORRIS: It’s about life. It’s about honoring people’s life. And it’s about humanizing a story of a person. And so it came about with this concept of when we think about Oscar Grant, or Michael Brown, or some of these men who have died. We actually have– Trayvon Martin– we have associations with them. So we think, hoodie, Trayvon Martin. You know, Michael Brown, hands up.

So we have this kind of connection between what it is– how we embody the notion of them. So it’s not just saying their name but it also is a reflection of like, so we actually see people donning the sweatshirt in honor, in memoriam, of Trayvon Martin. But when we think about someone like Sandra Bland, or Korryn Gaines, or Rekia Boyd, we don’t have that. We do not have anything that we associate with them to kind of say, like, even who are they?

So if I were just a name of someone who died, and then maybe it popped up on a blip on your 10 o’clock news, and particularly when there’s the se questions around the responsibility of the police and the role that they played in it, then what happens is that people become irrelevant. And their lives become as if they did not exist, and they don’t matter. So what African American Policy Forum was saying was like, no, these women mattered. Their lives mattered also.

And we cannot discount that in the experience of who they are. So we need to know who they are. So we need to say their names. And not just say their names, but also learn about them. So when you say, Sandra Bland, who was she? What did she do before she, you know, had that incident where she’s pulling over for failure to use her turn signal?

She had a whole life before that. She had people who loved her, and that’s so vital. And that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about the Say Her Name campaign, because it’s an embodiment that is happening not only online with the hashtag but also offline in the forms of actual protests.

I visited this hackerspace in Oakland where they had just had a protest where the women, the black women, were in the streets of Oakland and they had paint. And they wrote the names of these women who had died on their bodies. And they were basically saying– and they took photographs, so that was how they decorated the space of their office space. But it was just so absolutely beautiful and powerful.

And the notion that your name, it matters so much, because it’s who you are and your representation, first representation in the world. It’s like, this is who you are. And so when we say that, when we say her name, we’re echoing it and we’re bringing her back into our existence and our conversation. And the power of that so that a person is not forgotten, they matter, and we actually are able to celebrate them, and celebrate their life, and humanize them through that process.

So there’s so much more to this than just, as I said, OK, I’m just going to hashtag somebody. Or when they do become a hashtag, initially I had recoiled at that. Like, I don’t want to be a hashtag, because that means that number one, you’re dead. But secondarily, it means that you no longer really exist.

But then what I realized through this work is that actually the hashtag means that you continue, and your story continues. So #SandraBland is a mystery, but it’s a continually told story by thousands of people who now know her name, which matters.

ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK: Aaminah, thank you so much for joining me today. Your work is amazing. And I look forward to more of it.

AAMINAH NORRIS: Thank you so much. Thank you. Yay.