Rachel Jeantel is a name that will forever live in infamy in the minds of many Americans—both black and white—after her testimony as the prosecution’s star witness in last week’s trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida man accused of murder for the death of Trayvon Martin.
Let’s be honest: Jeantel’s very presence on the witness stand (broadcast live on national and international television) conjures up all kinds of age-old race, class, and gender-based stereotypes about black women. The large, full-figured, dark-skinned black girl. Not a great communicator. Not very articulate. Head hung low. Appearing to roll her eyes and head as she verbally sparred back and forth with defense attorney Don West. And, stunningly, she tweeted about needing a “drink.”
Stereotypes aren’t funny when they follow you everywhere. Another person’s perception of who we are in the workplace, at school, or even in a courtroom becomes their reality, and—in many cases—our burden. Jeantel was set up to lose from the moment she took the stand. Not just with the greater American community, but within her own community of black Americans. At one point during the trial last week, I had to turn my TV off. I could feel the heat rising around my neck as I watched West go after Jeantel, demean and degrade her intellect, her veracity, and her status as a young black woman in America.
But what really got my ire up was the many people in the black community who were posting, tweeting, and commenting about the young, dark-skinned, full-figured 19-year-old woman looking like a cross between Sapphire’s Precious and Tyler Perry’s Madea—not to mention her apparent misuse of the “King’s English” (as we black folks like to say). The backlash from some African-American commentators and journalists was unkind as well. Many felt that Jeantel was an “embarrassment” to the community and to the case. There seemed to be a collective grimace about how she came across as “hostile” and not “respectful” from a majority of the legal analysts and pundits on cable and network TV. The use of key descriptor words in the media such as lazy, ghetto, obese, angry, aggressive, smart-mouthed, flippant, stupid, dumb, and even high on drugs are all words that play on the subconscious emotions of jurors and observers.
I have written about the issue of black women and negative imagery for years. I penned an entire book, Black Woman Redefined, with research that validates how stereotypes and myths still plague black women of the highest caliber in our society in the workplace, academia, interpersonal dating relationships, and the media. If black women like Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, Susan Rice, and Oprah are subject to such unflattering stereotypes, imagine what a young woman like Rachel Jeantel—who hails from a lower socioeconomic level and who lacks the sophistication and education of a young black woman attending, say, Spelman College or Harvard University—is in for.
The bottom line about what we saw play out last week with the combative back-and-forth between West and Jeantel is how differently black and white cultures can be even in 21st-century America. The trial showed how very differently a young black woman (who speaks several languages) can be perceived by those who do not share her life experience or who are at least familiar with her cultural norms, slangs and “-isms” in interpersonal communication. The fact that we collectively as Americans continue to “hate on” on the 19-year-old with tweets, op-eds, and conversation is most disturbing of all.
In my opinion, as a recognized thought leader on all things black and female, there is a huge disconnect between what many white people watching the trial experience day to day with “articulate and educated” black people in America, like the Obamas, versus young Jeantel. On the other hand, we as black people hate what Jeantel represents. We hate that “sisters like her” set us back. We hate that she feeds into negative stereotypes. We judge her instead of accepting her for who she is, where she is, and embracing her for having the unbelievable courage to get on the witness stand (in front of the world), speak her truth, share her testimony, and honor the memory of her late friend Trayvon—and to do so under very intense scrutiny and personal attacks from an experienced defense counsel.
How do we show our support? We attack her looks, her words, and her demeanor.
In the final analysis, I believe that the jury’s decision will rest largely on this young black woman’s testimony. They will either believe her account or not. They will either overlook the “stereotypes” they have been subliminally ingrained to accept about large, dark-skinned, “combative” black women, or they will embrace them and dismiss her testimony as lies and subterfuge.
The trial so far has been highly emotional and riveting all at once. The theater between young Jeantel and attorney West last week seems almost like a fixed fight. The differences between an older, well-educated white male attorney and his young black female witness were stark and undeniable. It was David versus Goliath. In the end, we will all have to wait and see what the jury decides, but be clear on this truth: stereotypes about race, gender, and class will play into how the jury evaluates and ultimately decides this case.