Language Log » Sandra Bland: Talking While Black

A guest post on Language Log by Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler, analyzing the prosody of African American English in relation to the Sandra Bland video. Here’s the core of their analysis – see the original Language Log post for audio clips and further context and commentary: 

Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, as caught by the dash cam video, occurred in a world where African American English is identifiably different, and often leads to more negative perceptions of its speakers, regardless of what is actually said. In her interaction with officer Encinia, we can hear Bland using distinctly African American intonational features, even though her grammar is not necessarily typical of African American English. In the beginning of their second interaction, after Encinia has returned to her vehicle, Encinia says “You ok?”. Bland responds,


Bland not only uses more stresses than a typical white speaker might use in this context; these stresses are louder and higher. Then, after Encinia says “you seem very irritated”, Bland responds,

“I REALLY am, ‘cause I feel like it’s CRAP what i’m getting a TICKET for. I was GETTING OUT of your WAY, you was SPEEDING up, TAILING me, so I MOVE OVER, and you STOP me.”

Bland continues to use more stresses than linguists might expect from a comparable white speaker in a similar situation. We think this may have contributed to Encinia hearing Bland as more emotional or combative than she really was. To compare, in Encinia’s speech, he only uses a similar stress patterns to Bland’s later in the interaction, when he begins to shout at her:

“GET OUT of the CAR NOW”

In Encinia’s own speech, and likely in his perception of Bland’s, more stressed syllables means a tone that is angry and combative. While Bland is obviously upset about a potential ticket, she is likely not as angry as Encinia perceives her to be. The differences between Bland’s and Encinia’s dialects and speech styles contributed to his misperception of her. And at the moment when Bland declines to put out her cigarette, the groundwork of misunderstanding has already been laid, leading Encinia to treat Bland as if she were being hostile.