Why Is Rachel Jeantel Being Treated Like She's the One on Trial?


Rachel Jeantel is the key witness for the prosecution in George Zimmerman’s trial. She is the last person to have spoken with Trayvon Martin before he was killed. She is 19 years old, she is not media trained, and she’s still shaken up and wracked by guilt because of her friend’s death.

In short, she’s a black teenager going through something extraordinarily difficult in a very public sphere, in front of a predominantly white jury. According to the Internet, though, she’s “hideous,” “dumber than a box of rocks,” “an embarrassment,” and a “thug.”

As Sherri Williams at Backbone put it:

One of the most common criticisms about Jeantel was that she looked like Precious, the overweight, undereducated character with a deep brown complexion portrayed by actress Gabourey Sidibe. That criticism was particularly troubling because social media users assaulted her appearance because she lives in a body that this society finds repugnant – one that is large, black and female. Jeantel’s is a body that holds no value in this society so she is perceived as a person who is not valuable or credible. So for some people anything that came out of her mouth, even in the most perfect English grammar and diction, would be meaningless.

She adds, “Yesterday, young black womanhood seemed to be on trial instead of Zimmerman.” And, indeed, social media users have heavily criticized Jeantel’s hair, her body, her grammar, her perceived (lack of) intelligence, her diction, and her attitude. This whole situation is, fairly obviously, a horrific melting pot of racism, classism, sexism, and fat-phobia, and it’s leading many to doubt her credibility.

In a piece titled “What White People Don’t Understand About Rachel Jeantel,” Rachel Samara calls her “the misunderstood witness.” She argues that, because the “middled-aged white men on both sides of this case are totally aware of what Rachel’s life is like,” the jury (and many of the spectators) are unlikely to like her as a witness. The internet is furthering the defense’s work already — the Smoking Gun has already picked through her social media history and found Tweets that read, “This shit right here goin make me smoke I need a drink a Lott,” and “Drink drink Bitch dnt kill my vibe,” as well as a few that expressed anger over Trayvon’s death and anxiety at the prospect of dealing with phone calls on the one-year anniversary of his murder.

Here’s a selection of the comments people posted from their public Facebook profiles:

If that was the type of women Travon was running with, he owes Zimmerman a hearty thank you
Oxygen thief… that’s all I got
How did they get Jabba the Hut to testify in this case?

Yes, she drinks and smokes — but that’s not at all atypical of a 19 year old. Yes, she’s having difficulty sorting out her emotions after her friend’s highly-publicized murder. That’s not hard to fathom, though. On the stand, she’s been blunt, rude, and unsure of herself — but, again, she has no media training.

Admittedly, her reliability as a witness is not completely certain. As Mary Elizabeth Williams points out at Salon, she’s “admitted to law enforcement that she lied about her initial claim that he didn’t attend Martin’s funeral because she was hospitalized at the time; she now says that she felt too ‘guilty’ to face his parents and ‘didn’t want to see the body.’” According to the Huffington Post, she lied about her age, claiming that she was a minor in order to avoid becoming involved in the trial.

Those are separate issues, though. Scrutinizing her Tweets and the photos she posts to her Facebook account, criticizing her diction and her attitude, and calling it “humiliating” that she can’t read cursive is completely unnecessary and distracting. Even worse, it reinforces the same culture of systemic racism that allegedly caused Trayvon’s murder in the first place.

Image via Getty.

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