Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically

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Trayvon Martin’s friend and a key witness in the trial of George Zimmerman made a lot more sense than you think

Having spent nearly fifteen years with NBC News, I’ve witnessed (first-hand) a great number of high profile court cases.  Most recently, Casey Anthony.  One of the things I’ve come to realize – with the rise of cable and its endless 24/7 news cycle – is that the circus atmosphere created around these cases is not the only problem.  Another, and more dangerous, is the nasty habit the media has of over simplifying an issue…getting hung up on one specific aspect or characteristic of a story.  The George Zimmerman trial is no different.  To call this case simply a “black and white” issue, is to miss – entirely – an opportunity.  An opportunity  to look at the complex ways we are culturally different, and the challenges those differences bring to our goals of understanding each other. Rachel Jeantel, who testified on her friend’s behalf for days last week, became a social media phenomenon – being both vilified and supported by millions.  But what does all this say about us as a society?  What does it say about those who watched her testimony in judgment as if it were a TV show?  Chastising her for her way of expression, as opposed to empathizing with her experience.  When this case is finally decided, they’ll be others to take its place.  The media will have another chance to help us understand the implications of the events they’re covering.  I hope they don’t blow it again.  Because if they do, we as a society will be the real losers.    

The following article is from John McWhorter of Time.  We think he sums up our point very well.

Let’s face it, none of us would want to be Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel in the last couple of days. Much of the country is laughing at the “ghetto” black girl who keeps getting tripped up in her story. But Jeantel has made a lot more sense than it may have seemed.

Yes, she was dissimulating in pretending that Trayvon Martin’s referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” wasn’t “racial”—of course it was. Cracker is today’s “honkey,” a word now about as antique as The Jeffersons in which George used it so much. It is both descriptive and pejorative, although it’s important to note that according to Jeantel, Martin was not calling Zimmerman a cracker to his face but when trying to give his friend on the phone an update on the situation.

The origins of the word in reference to persons as opposed to snacks is obscure, but most likely started when cracking could mean bragging in Elizabethan English. Upper-crust colonial Americans had a way of referring to lower-class British immigrants to the South as loud-mouthed “crackers,” as in boastful beyond their proper station.

Pretty soon the word just referred to the people, period, with elegant Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted even casually writing in 1850 after a Florida jaunt that “some crackers owned a good many Negroes.”

Jeantel may well have heard some whites in Florida using the word for themselves with a kind of in-group pride – just as black people use the N-word that way. But surely she knows that’s a different meaning, just as anyone who claims it’s okay for Paula Deen to have used the N-word because Jay-Z does is faking it.

The important thing is that it made perfect sense for Martin to use that word to describe a white man chasing him for no reason. Few fully understand that the tension between young black men and the police (and by extension, security guards, traffic cops and just about any sort of watchman) is the main thing keeping America from getting past race. If ten years went by without a story like the Martin case we’d be in a very different country.

There are several possible reasons why Jeantel feigned on whether calling someone a cracker was racially-motivated. It could be because she wants to protect her dead friend. It could be because she’s extremely uncomfortable. Much of her irritable reticence is predictable of someone of modest education reacting to an unfamiliar type of interrogation on the witness stand. As natural as many educated people find direct questions, they are culturally rather unusual worldwide, an artifice of educational procedure. In oral cultures – i.e. most cultures— direct questions are processed as abrupt and confrontational. In that, Jeantel is operating at a clear disadvantage.

Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect.

It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules. If she says to the defense lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you” it’s not because it’s Haitian—black people around the country use what is called the preterite “had,” which I always heard my Philadelphia cousins using when I was a kid.

If you think Black English is primitive, here’s a test – is it “I ain’t be listening that much” or “I don’t be listening that much”? It’s don’t, and Jeantel and millions of other black people nationwide could tell immediately that using “ain’t” in that sentence is “off.”

This was what defense attorney Don West failed to understand when he asked Jeantel:

“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”

“I don’t understand you, I do understand English,” said Jeantel.

“When someone speaks to you in English, do you believe you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” asked West.

“I understand English really well,” said Jeantel.

She understands it as well as West or anyone. So now who’s the dumb one?

2 responses

  1. While I understand your post and what you are saying ,I get it. However, you forgot one thing. It was the Prosecution who was trying to push the fact that English is not her first language, as in to somehow explain why there were inconsistencies in her testimony. While her testimony was not any more inconstant than every other witness that has taken the stand and i’m referring to neighbors for the most part. My problem stems from the seeming lack of respect, it’s not a black or a white thing, it’s just something the younger generation in my mind is lacking. Another thing I can’t get past is the (sneaky) phone interview by Mr. Crump, as well as the disposition where she literally asked the Prosecutor if he needed her to embellish her story. I honestly think people should report responsibly and not skew it based on their bias. Mr. West didn’t look anymore stupid asking Jeantel those questions than the Prosecution did bringing it up in the first place.

    • Hi Bridget,

      Thank you for comment. Open and authentic dialog is always most important!

      You made some good points. Things worth considering.

      On the subject of respect (and lack thereof) that’s exactly our point. Cultural differences cloud our knowing…whether, what we are seeing is a gap in respect, understanding or intent.

      We’re making judgements on the way people communicate without searching whether we truly understand them. Judging someone by lumping them into an entire generation is a generalization unto itself.

      There’s no question that there are some people trying to make this a ‘black and white’ issue.

      We’d like to see the media go beyond the surface – help us to understand more of the complex issues that shape what we, as viewers are watching. With more of the truth we can then seek to change the things the feed potentially explosive bias.

      In a country where we continue to deal with the scars of slavery and discrimination…to over emphasize this one aspect is to limit the opportunities of our growing as a diverse nation.

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