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On Being Not White In America II: Can’t Talk Right

June 30, 2013


“dumb and stupid,”

“mumbling, inarticulate,”


“ghetto trash,”

a “hood

“horrifying, shocking… disturbing,”

wildly illiterate (she simply cannot read) and who seems unable to speak in coherent sentences,”

hideous,” “dumber than a box of rocks,” “an embarrassment,” and a “thug.

The above is just a sampling of the ways in which now, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel has been portrayed by the media over the past week. The first one matters the most because, you know, she apparently wasn’t self effacing enough when she used the word “sir,” over and over.

Why? In part, it’s because she’s a woman of color and she spoke aloud in public. That’s just what happens because it’s easier and significantly more comfortable to mock the speech of People of Color than to examine the history of the specific dialect. If you read the commentary, barring some specific articles, you would think that the stereotypically black dialect emerged from a vacuum and had no roots in hundreds of years of keeping PoC sounding exactly as ignorant as people think Rachel Jeantel sounds.

But no, the fault must lie with the lazy WoC, or her parents or her school.

Let’s pause for a moment so I can make a point about context.

Sweet Brown is talking about a fire.

Antoine Dodson is talking about a rapist.

Does their dialect sound familiar? It should as it’s fundamentally the same as the one Ms. Jeantel speaks in. Do you know why they are lauded and Ms. Jeantel is derided even though they’re all talking about serious subjects? Because she wasn’t playing to the audience and giving them what they want. Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson are funny and as PoC humiliating oneself while entertaining Caucasians is fine. Defending oneself and one’s dead friend? Well then something must be wrong with you. Twitter will make you a list.


Here’s the really awful thing; if I had been up on that stand I would have been criticized for the way I speak as well and I am entirely indistinguishable from a Caucasian on the phone.

You know because if a PoC speaks in perfect, American English they are reviled as being inauthentic, “a put on,” or striving to be white.

Those criticisms are unfair. They are also automatic, endless and completely inescapable. Speaking in common PoC vernacular? WRONG! See the list at the top of the page. Speaking in American English? STILL WRONG! No matter what ALWAYS WRONG.

Of course, since Ms. Jeantel is female we also get to hear about how unattractive she is, but that matters far less than the insidious point the defense team is making and so many of her critics are supporting.

Mr. West (George Zimmerman’s defense attorney) asked why Trayvon Martin “decided to approach this man and say ‘why you following me,” when he could have “just run home.

“It was just a fight that Trayvon Martin started.”

Birds of a feather and all that, right? If she is a thug, which is the overall conclusion of the vast number of outlets with comments on Ms. Jeantel, then they can paint the boy she heard murdered as one too. And if he was a thug then George Zimmerman’s fear was justified. If he was justified in his fear then wasn’t he also justified in stalking and shooting this boy? The concept that a PoC has the right not to be stalked by a person with a gun likely isn’t even on their radar.

And that’s all it will take for a jury of five Caucasian women and one woman whom most people describe only as something other than Caucasian to arrive at an acquittal.

Don’t be surprised if that’s where we end up.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Judy Freedman permalink
    June 30, 2013 9:14 AM

    I was disturbed when she explained she can’t read cursive, wondered how else her education has reduced her ability to get along in the world. I am appalled by how the defense lawyer looks at and speaks to her, as if she’s some kind of extraterrestrial.

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