“Did you see that gorilla testify at that Traybond (sic) Martin trial?” the beer delivery guy—a nondescript white dude with graying hair and a giant beer gut—asked the clerk.
The 20-something attendant smirked, his acne-scared face folding in on itself, and replied, “Someone probably told her that’s where the welfare checks were that day.”
Glancing around the convenience station, I wondered if anyone else had been listening to the ugliness unfolding before me. Aside from a ragged looking man perusing the malt liquor selection (it was nine in the morning), the place was empty, which probably explained the unfiltered torrent of verbal excrement reaching my ears.
The two men were discussing the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s sort-of girlfriend and the last person—aside from his killer—to hear his voice. Jeantel is a heavy, dark-skinned girl; the kind of person who gets mercilessly stereotyped by the ignorant among us. Her appearance, the rhythm and syntax of her sentences, her clothing choices, and even the way she held her mouth caused a heartbreakingly large number of people to think they knew who she was, and by extension, who Trayvon Martin was.
Only problem, they don’t really know a damn thing. Rachel Jentel, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, speaks three languages: English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. During her testimony, she spoke in the English vernacular of the black South, a manner of speaking that many observers equated with lack of intelligence, education and perhaps even trustworthiness.
The defense attorneys—doing the job they are constitutionally obligated to do, it should be noted—wasted no time in attempting to exploit this vulnerability, twisting long-accepted and understood verbal constructions (replacing the word “are” with “is,” for example) to imply dishonesty, or at least confusion.
But Rachel Jeantel’s regional dialect has absolutely no bearing on the accuracy of her testimony (or her intelligence level, for that matter), just as her size and skin tone have no bearing on what kind of person she is. The defense attempted to capitalize on those things to paint Jeantel as “combative” and even “thuggish” because they made the calculation that the jury’s prejudices would do their work for them.
And, if media commentary (not to mention that which occurs in Southern convenience stores when the people involved think no one’s listening) is any indication, the defense made a smart bet, at least from the perspective of keeping George Zimmerman out of jail. The piranhas, sharks and vultures were all falling over themselves to hate on this poor girl, who never asked to be put in this position.
She not only had to endure losing her best friend, but further to have the experience of hearing his panicked last words moments before he was shot to death by Zimmerman. And then, when she did her duty as a citizen and testified in a court of law, she was crucified for not presenting herself in a manner (arbitrarily) acceptable to white America, for speaking in a way that people who don’t know any better consider “ghetto,” for failing to show proper deference to her betters.
If Rachel Jeantel had been a slender white girl, people would have been charmed by her “colloquialisms.” If she had spoken like an Ivy League graduate, people would automatically have given her testimony more weight. But because she’s a working-class black woman from the South, with the speech patterns and cultural signifiers that come along with that, our society rushes to turn her into something less than she is, something less human.
The animosity directed at Jeantel is directly connected to the ignorant prejudice that guided George Zimmerman’s actions that fateful night. This deep and insidious concept that black people are somehow, fundamentally less; less civilized, less intelligent, less honorable. It’s an idea held by a sickening number of Americans, even though few of them would come out and say it. Hell, a good number of them probably won’t even admit to themselves that’s how they really feel.
It’s the kind of ignorance that can only exist in darkness. It’s easier to believe that all heavy, dark-skinned women are brash and ignorant welfare queens if you’ve never actually gotten to know any heavy, dark-skinned women. It’s easier to believe that young black males are all dangerous criminals if you’ve never known any black men on a truly personal level.
Once you actually get out into the world, you tend to find that people are people, full stop. Human nature is the same whether it comes with fair skin or a dark complexion, whether it’s expressed with the speech patterns of a college professor or a corner kid. Rachel Jeantel is a human being, like Trayvon Martin was, just like I am, and just like you are. She lost her best friend to a bullet, and no matter where you fall on the issue of Zimmerman’s guilt, she is deserving of our compassion and empathy. Instead, we gave her scorn and contempt, in spades.
That says infinitely more about us than it does about Rachel Jeantel.