Rachel Jeantel can’t read cursive. That’s the main takeaway from the fourth day of the George Zimmerman trial: Jeantel, the heavyset, snappy prosecution witness who was on the phone with her friend Trayvon Martin minutes before he died, cannot read script handwriting. Defense attorney Don West underlined that fact for the benefit of the jury, the general public, and everyone else looking for an excuse to dismiss her testimony.
Given the extent to which Jeantel’s demeanor was covered on television and in news articles, you’d be excused for thinking—as Jezebel’s Callie Beusman put it—that she was the one on trial. Over the past couple of days, Jeantel has recounted that Martin told her he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” who, it seems, then proceeded to attack him. Pundits, meanwhile, have made snickering observations that have had little to do with the substance of her testimony. They’ve criticized Jeantel’s weight, her attitude, her manner of dress, and her mumbling, inarticulate answers to West’s questions. These observations are generally framed as discussions of her credibility and how she’ll be received by the jury. But they’re also an excuse to point and laugh at a poor, black teenager who comes from an America that we’d rather not acknowledge exists.
The media has consistently treated Jeantel as if she were some sassy alien life-form. The New York Daily News story about yesterday’s proceedings focused on Jeantel-as-sideshow, calling the cursive story an “especially cringe-worthy moment,” and noting that, “[a]t one point, the key prosecution witness blurted out, ‘That’s retarded, Sir’ in response to West’s suggestion that Martin attacked Zimmerman.” On Piers Morgan Tonight, Morgan repeated the phrase “creepy-ass cracker” as if it were some inscrutable bit of baby talk. The day before, panelist Jayne Weintraub disdainfully asserted that “it's really not about this young woman's … credibility, because her credibility, it's a wash whatever her testimony is. Yes, she was a difficult witness. She was impossible.”
If the established media was patronizing, many Internet users were outright cruel. As Beusman put it at Jezebel, “social media users have heavily criticized Jeantel's hair, her body, her grammar, her perceived (lack of) intelligence, her diction, and her attitude.” Hurdler Lolo Jones tweeted, “Rachel Jeantel looked so irritated during the cross-examination that I burned it on DVD and I’m going to sell it as Madea goes to court.” Somebody named Mike Lewis made another movie reference: “@AnthonyCumia this girl Rachel Jeantel looks like precious. Right? Where was her KFC?” And lest you think this is all coming from white people, much of “black Twitter” spent yesterday mocking Jeantel and her “ghetto” image. As a Twitter user named MJ’s Mommie wrote: “Its no excuse to use age for Rachel Jeantel's demeanor. Her attitude & grammar is playing right into stereotypes about black women.”
Racial and socioeconomic stereotypes play differently in different contexts. The statements and mannerisms that make Jeantel a laughingstock now might have made her a viral video star outside the courtroom. As I was watching Jeantel’s testimony and the subsequent reaction, I couldn’t help thinking about Aisha Harris’ Slate piece from May about the “fairly recent trend of ‘hilarious’ black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a ‘colorful’ style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.” Charles Ramsey, Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown—these people caught white America’s attention in part because they so blatantly violated normative behavior. If Jeantel would’ve been filmed saying “That’s retarded, sir” to some reporter on the streets outside her house, the Internet might well be singing her praises. Black people are celebrated when they play the fool in the proper setting.
The implication of all the social media chatter and news coverage is clear: Rachel Jeantel was out of place in a courtroom. The flipside of that implication is clear, too: Rachel Jeantel should go back to the ghetto where she belongs. In fact, that’s the whole point of the Trayvon Martin case, which has become a referendum on how comfort and privilege deal with the unfamiliar. Before Martin died, he was dehumanized. No matter whose story you believe, it’s clear that George Zimmerman looked at a young black kid walking through a gated community and decided that he wasn’t supposed to be there. He responded by following him, approaching him, and … it’s up to you to decide what you think happened next.
The dehumanization of Rachel Jeantel—the laughter, the disbelief—is rooted in the same attitude that causes people to treat unarmed black kids with suspicion, to follow them around subdivisions for no good reason. I rarely agree with Nancy Grace, but yesterday on HLN she made a decent point. “Oh, everybody can laugh all they want to. She can’t read cursive. Or that she has nicknames she goes by that some people may laugh at; this one is ‘Diamond Eugene.’ You know what? Laugh all you want to. Nobody ever said that a murder trial was a tea party, where everybody had perfect manners and spoke perfectly. That’s not what this is about.”
And she’s right. A lot of the people in our jails and prisons come from poor black neighborhoods, and the witnesses in their trials are often made uncomfortable by courtrooms and judges and aggressive defense attorneys. Dismissing them and what they have to say because of their grammar and demeanor says more about us than it does about them. Rachel Jeantel can’t understand cursive. We can’t understand Rachel Jeantel. Which is worse?