In Defense of Rachel Jeantel

After days of mocking comments, viewers of the Zimmerman trial speak out in defense of the prosecution's star witness.

Rachel Jeantel (pool/Getty Images)
Rachel Jeantel (pool/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The George Zimmerman murder trial has captured the nation’s attention since it began. When Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak with Trayvon Martin (aside from Zimmerman), took the stand, it ignited a dialogue on race, class and the cultural shaming of our own.

Many people have been very critical of the way Jeantel speaks — her subject-verb agreement, her Southern accent, her tendency to say “axe” instead of “ask.” Speech is a cultural marker often used to highlight one’s otherness. The problem with “improper speech” is not that people who speak in such tongues cannot be understood. It’s that they speak in a way that makes others uncomfortable; that it forces people to acknowledge and deal with an otherness that they may otherwise prefer to step around. It is an otherness that makes whites uncomfortable and, apparently, shames blacks to the point of publicly attacking Jeantel for who she is.

In discussing Jeantel’s testimony, news anchors made sure to point out that she wasn’t using “the queen’s English,” harped on the defense’s inability to understand her and questioned whether she understood her importance to the trial. On Twitter, black folks said much of the same but also called her fat, ridiculed her complexion and made memes mocking her.

Writer Sherri Williams of the website Backbone compiled a Storify of some of the tweets and memes and further noted: “The black respectability police pondered if her father is in her life. They said if George Zimmerman is acquitted it would be her fault because of her sassy attitude. Black folks said girls like Jeantel are the type to keep away from their children.”

The important context of what Jeantel has been forced to endure both on the stand and on the night that she last talked to Trayvon Martin has been cast aside, the importance of her emotions and humanity stripped from her. Oh, the extremes to which some black folk will go to distance themselves from the lot of us in the name of looking like the right kind of black. I can’t say it better than Michael Arceneaux did: “I’m embarrassed for you uppity Negroes going out of your way to live up to standards imposed by those who’ll never respect you.”

If there is a light at the end of this self-hating tunnel, it lies within the contingent of black Twitter that has spoken up to defend Jeantel and has been doing so since her testimony started. Here’s to those who never forgot that she is a human being.