July 8th, 2013

Rachel Jeantel versus the Twitterverse

George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin has started and, of course,  so has the constant media blitz. As it happens most of the time, I tuned in from a peripheral standpoint and merely overheard the poor distaste of defense attorney Don West’s opening remarks and “knock knock” joke. However, I actually got to experience witness Rachel Jeantel’s second day of testimony first-hand. I was clued into watching it because my Facebook newsfeed was off the charts with an overwhelming amount of negative comments about Black people being set back a few hundred years after Jeantel’s testimony.

Clutch Magazine offers a few glimpses of the criticism expressed on social media, but what’s most shameful is that a majority of the criticism came from Black people, and of course West’s cross examination was the catalyst for it all. From West’s constant request that Ms. Jeantel repeat herself, to the translations on the screen in replays of her testimony, the implication by media was that she was impossible to understand. The jokes, comments, and downright shade (as we say in the “urban lexicon”) coming from a significant amount of Black people put Jeantel in the center of a tsunami-sized judgment storm. Jeantel’s role as the person on the phone with Martin during his murder and her certainty about what she heard has been lost on most everyone. Instead, the focus has shifted to whether Ms. Jeantel is ignorant , illiterate and uneducated,, and her resemblance to Precious. It was if it were her fault that as a nineteen-year-old, she was supposed to know criminal justice and trial proceedings inside and out.

As Maya K. Francis says in her blog on PhillyMag.com, West demonstrates with seamless ease just how much our “very being disrupts traditional power structures” as Black people. The emphasis that Rachel Jeantel can’t read cursive and the attempts to twist her testimony to portray Trayvon Martin as an instigator and arbiter of violence are truly revealing the image of what many people believe Black represents.

What’s worse is that even amongst each other our own being disrupts our perceived sense of accomplishment and being highly educated. A fellow classmate of mine, Ashon Crawley, stirred my soul with his piece I Want New Dreams: On Rachel Jeantel and Citizenship where he writes:

“…watching coverage of the case, one would think that Jeantel herself was the perpetrator. Her voice inflections analyzed, her speech patterns splayed, her body size and color ridiculed on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, comments sections of news stories, blogs and by the mainstream media. Cries and shrills and charges that ‘she should’ve had better preparation!’…seemed to largely miss the point that in these United States of America, one could perform the most staid and respectable negro stereotype and still be razed with charges of being something other than human.”

As a Black woman I’ve had plenty of people tell me I speak like I’m white, and a few people who call me at work have jokingly said they didn’t think it was actually me on the phone. The part that bothers me the most about all of this is that it happens in the wake of the Supreme Court dismantling many of the rights people fought, died, and longed for, and as Paula Deen clogs up the morning network pipeline because of her racist jokes against us. A murder trial is happening that will no doubt change the course of even more Black lives, but the media doesn’t focus on that. Instead, the focus is on how ignorant a nineteen-year-old girl sounds during testimony, and that her actions somehow represent or denigrate an entire race of people. The simple truth is that Rachel Jeantel just happens to be on a stand defending her friend, and in my opinion, she’s doing a damn good job of it.

– Anne Desrosiers

Anne Desrosiers is the founder and Executive Director of The World is Your Oyster, nonprofit consultant and former Americorps Volunteer in Service to America. As an avid media consumer, Anne enjoys engaging in the critique and debate of improving what we see, hear and eventually become as a result of media and its influence on our lives.

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