I'm afraid this post might not be coherent, because this particular topic makes me really, really angry. But I obviously care enough to write about it, so I'll do my best to also make it readable.
I was raised to not be mean. This sounds like an obvious thing, but there's a big difference between "being raised without being encouraged to be mean" and "being actively encouraged to not be mean." My mother, who is otherwise a fairly quiet and laid-back person, was very firm on this point. We did not tell each other to shut up in my house. We disagreed, and we fought, but we did not yell at each other. Whenever an ad hominem element crept into a complaint about school or work, the response was usually something along the lines of "Okay, that part's not relevant." We could be frustrated, and angry, but mean, we were gently reminded, was never necessary.
So I think that this cultivated aversion to meanness is a big part of the problem I have with the coverage of Rachel Jeantel. Jeantel, you may have heard, is the star witness in the Trayvon Martin case, the girl who was on the phone with him when he was shot. You have also probably heard the following: that her testimony was "embarrassing" and "humiliating"; that she is "brutally ignorant" and "stupid"; that she is "unreliable" and "inconsistent," "cringe-worthy" and "difficult to understand."
She has her defenders, of course, but even many of them are saying that "she's not the one on trial," which implies that these characteristics are irrelevant to her role - not that the critiques themselves are wrong.
In my opinion, however, they're nasty, petty attacks on a perfectly fine witness. Let's take a closer look at them, one by one.
- Rachel Jeantel is stupid because she can't read cursive writing. I grew up in Florida public schools. Believe me: it is totally plausible that her education there did not teach her cursive. It is also plausible that she was taught cursive, but for a variety of potential life reasons didn't have the resources to focus on her education. Or maybe she's dyslexic. None of these equate to stupidity.
- Rachel Jeantel is unreliable because she (lied about x, y, z/is on record as drinking and smoking). Jeantel lied about being a minor (she wasn't) and going to Trayvon Martin's funeral (she didn't). She says she claimed to be under 18 because she wanted to avoid media attention - possibly because, as a young, poor, heavyset black woman, she knew that she would receive exactly the kind of attention that she's getting now. Are we going to blame her for not wanting that?
She didn't go to Trayvon's funeral because she was traumatized by the fact that she was on the phone with a friend who then died. Which, again, seems totally reasonable to me. She drinks and she smokes and she Tweets about getting her nails done before court BECAUSE SHE'S NINETEEN AND NINETEEN-YEAR-OLDS ARE NOT RENOWNED FOR THEIR DECISION-MAKING SKILLS. Go find a freshman student government representative at UVA who doesn't drink or smoke, and then get back to me.
- Rachel Jeantel is hostile and/or incomprehensible, which hurts her credibility as a witness. First of all, the way we talk about language in this country drives me up a wall - with so much disdain, as though a person who speaks differently, in a way that hasn't been adopted by the mainstream, is dumb by default. Perhaps the reason that this particular dialect is not in the mainstream is because American society oppressed black people for hundreds of years? Just a thought. There's a long history of patchwork dialects in this world, and if you want to dismiss the way Jeantel speaks, bear in mind that you're also dismissing large English-speaking swaths of the Indian subcontinent and the entire nation of Haiti. Also, I understood her perfectly fine, and I'm not even an auditory learner.
Regarding her hostility*: personally, I think that makes her more credible, not less. Her friend is dead and now she has to talk about it in public, which doesn't sound like a fun afternoon to me. And again, she must have known how America would perceive her, justly or not. Who actively looks forward to being mocked?
To sum: Rachel Jeantel is embarrassing to herself and others because she is a) poor, b) young, c) black, and d) angry that her friend is dead. In other words, she is embarrassing because she is herself and not us. If that is not the very definition of meanness, I don't know what is.
An interesting companion to this debate is a recent Buzzfeed piece on the one and only Kanye West, "In Defense of Kanye's Vanity." Their take on the musician's widely mocked narcissism is fascinating and, I think, very important:
To assert that, despite the boundaries of a racist world that strangles your very view of what is possible, you are still going to be out here stuntin’ on everyone, that you will love yourself and love yourself excessively, is powerful beyond measure. And as many black artists have said before, for black folks to love themselves is a political act. The poet Audre Lorde captures it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
With Kanye and with Rachel Jeantel, we are free to wish that they might appear more gentle, or comfortable, or familiar. But they have no obligation to be what we consider "palatable," and we have no right to expect it. Because it may be that our definition is what needs changing, and not the protests against it.
*Do not get me started on so-called "hostility" or "aggressiveness" in women, which is an entirely separate conversation.