Sunday, June 30, 2013

Trayvon Martin case: How Rachel Jeantel went from star witness to 'train wreck'

Rachel Jeantel, the
prosecution’s star witness
in the murder case of
George Zimmerman,
sparked a torrent of
commentary from both
whites and blacks,
much of it negative.
Will criticism of her
demeanor override her
crucial testimony?
By Patrik Jonsson
Christian Science Monitor 

Nineteen-year-old Rachel Jeantel holds some of the most critical information about the Trayvon Martin murder case. Yet her delivery on the stand in Seminole County this week drew widespread criticism.

She was hard to understand, mumbled, acted impertinent, annoyed, rude, and came across, as one cable TV news host said, as a “train wreck.”

While some have rushed to defend Jeantel’s multi-lingual background, others leaned hard into her personally, letting fly on social media a swirl of epithets that roughly amounted to dismissal of her as “ghetto trash,” as one commenter said. That reaction has steered the trial into a new phase, reflecting, some commentators argue, more on America’s privileged classes, including blacks, than Jeantel’s trustworthiness as a star witness.

Reaction to Rachel Jeantel on the stand “has been in terms of aesthetics, of disregarding a witness on the basis of how she talks, how good she is at reading and writing,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. “These are subtle things that echo literacy testing at the polls, echo the question of whether black Americans can testify against white people, of being always suspect in their testimony. It’s the same old dynamics emerging in a very different guise.”

Read the full article here.

This article strikes me because it illustrates exactly what I want to save some of my more hard core students from. Rachel Jeantel is not a unique case------there are many people like her who cannot relate important information, cannot be taken seriously, cannot communicate effectively at all with people they often find themselves needing to communicate with. The fact that they cannot read, cannot write and cannot speak at anywhere near effective levels to participate in the parts of American culture that will help them emerge from poverty is a tragedy, but one from which lots of people are trying to help them dig out. The article implies this is about privilege----that she does not communicate the way the privileged classes do. True enough, but I work at a place which funnels government money by the bucket loads to try to get people like Rachel the skills they need to succeed.

This article gets me fired up to help more people escape, but I am also very sad because so many of them just squander their opportunity, choosing to argue with our attempts to help them improve their communication skills, and to spend their energy fighting the very people who are trying to help them.


  1. I agree.

    It seems to me that Rachel Jeantel genuinely doesn't know any better, despite years of so-called education.

    I find myself even more frustrated by those who do know better and who are educated who still excuse her and blame overweight, out-of-shape, middle-aged, white guys like me.

    I didn't do this to Rachel; I spend every day trying to prevent this -- for all the good it does.

  2. What Rachel Jeantel knows is not to trust the police, or a white guy trying to use her to prove that her friend was killed in self-defense. The perspective of Jeantel is to view the entire justice system as untrustworthy. Because from her point of view it is.

    She is a hostile witness. Hostile even to the prosecution. Hostile to the whole process. There is nothing in her life that has taught her to trust the room full of people she's testifying in front of. Or the judge or any of the lawyers. That some white people are confounded by the fact that a black person would not call the police--even if one of their friends might be in trouble--shows the complete distance between Jeantel and any white person who just does not understand what it is to be her. That in her life the police are more trouble than most trouble any of her friends might get themselves into.

    Bella, you can't "save" young women like Rachel. Her "problem" is bred in the bone. You cannot convince her that the mostly white world of the "justice" system is not out to get people like her friend Trayvon, or her, or her family. Because often it is. You can't convince her it's better to speak so white people will understand her. I don't think she cares, and I'm not sure she should.

    Why should Rachel Jeantel be expected to play by the "white rules" that have been set for her? And be respectful and speak clearly so white people can understand her? Because it's efficient? Because she would be better off? She obviously doesn't think so.

    Choosing to "succeed" is not the same thing for Rachel as it is for a young white woman. They don't come from the same place.

    1. No, Stella. Of course I can't save her. But she can participate in saving herself---and I have participated in helping people like her do that. Speaking English correctly, communicating effectively----I'm sorry but I just don't agree that those are "white" things. It is so sad that so many people think they are.

    2. It's wrongheaded to write of "speaking English correctly". There is no "correct" English. There is standard English, and nonstandard English. And it definitely is a race issue because African-American Vernacular English is spoken by African-Americans.

      And Rachel Jenteal communicates very effectively in her particular dialect. If you don't speak that dialect, you might not understand her.

      I will grant that it is much easier to go "farther" in life speaking and writing standard English. But it is absolutely not a matter of "correctness" or "effectiveness". AAVE is not incorrect, and it is not ineffective.

      It is, again, nonstandard.

    3. I am so glad you clarified the difference between "speaking correctly" and speaking a nonstandard version of English. I would love to see how effectively the lawyers and judges would fare in her environment. How persuasive would they be among her peers?

    4. "It's wrongheaded to write of "speaking English correctly". There is no "correct" English. "

      Would your students be able to use this as a valid defense at a grade-grievance?

    5. No. Because our class is conducted in Standard English, and I grade them on whether or not they can use Standard English. That doesn't mean that AAVE is "incorrect". It means Standard English is the version of English they are responsible for in my class. Just as if I were conducting the class in Quebecois French and there were Parisians in the class. Those Parisians would be responsible for writing in Quebecois French.

      "Standard" does not mean better. It means "standard."

    6. Is that a joke or a serious question?

    7. "It's wrongheaded to write of "speaking English correctly". There is no "correct" English. "

      Is that a joke or do you actually teach that to your Freshman Comp class?

    8. My class is taught in Standard English. This does not mean Standard English is the "correct" form of English. It means it is the standard form of English, in the US. It means that to get credit the students in my class must be able to write Standard English. Just as the students in a French class taught in Parisian French would be expected to write in Parisian French, and not a dialect of French found in Canada or the Ivory Coast.

      It seems like there are a lot of people on this thread who are completely unfamiliar not only with the history of English and how languages develop, but prescriptivism vs. descriptivism with regard to languages in general.

      And that's not a joke. That's not funny at all, especially if value judgements are made on that basis.

  3. There are cultural difference between those in poverty and those in the middle class. Rachel is in poverty and that room full of lawyers, just as in a room full of teachers, are full of those in the middle class. Take race out of the equation. If I were to suddenly find myself in Rachel's world I am not sure I would be successful in it. I would not know the rules or the lingo. What I think many are saying here is that they are trying to help people escape poverty not racial expectations?

  4. There are cultural difference between those in poverty and those in the middle class. Rachel is in poverty and that room full of lawyers, just as in a room full of teachers, are full of those in the middle class. Take race out of the equation. If I were to suddenly find myself in Rachel's world I am not sure I would be successful in it. I would not know the rules or the lingo. What I think many are saying here is that they are trying to help people escape poverty not racial expectations?

    1. Oh, I wish I'd read this before commenting above. You said exactly what I was thinking and attempting to say.

      Yes, opportunities abound for students, but that doesn't mean just because we provide an educational opportunity doesn't mean people see that as the ideal for them.

  5. Just that I second everything Stella said. As usual.

  6. I have to admit; I hadn't been following this (thanks, Bella, for pointing it out), and I've only now watched a few youtube clips of the actual testimony, and read some commentary. I'm torn. First, keeping in mind that we're seeing Jeantel in an extreme situation (and facing a defense attorney who's doing his job, which is to discredit her, perhaps by any means available, very well), I assume that we're not seeing her, in some ways, at her best. If I had a student who conveyed the same air of barely-to-not-at-all-restrained hostility in class, I'd certainly consider that a problem (one to be solved primarily by the student, not me). But she's not in a classroom, she's in a courtroom, and it appears that the majority of the time she spent on the stand was under cross-examination. Given those circumstances, while I'm not about to endorse her approach as a whole, I find myself rather admiring her spirit (and, bottom line, liking her). She does the outwardly-respectful-but-clearly-disagreeing-with-the-underlying-agenda "yes, sir" as well as some witnesses I've seen testifying before Congressional committees. And (perhaps as a result of teaching a wide variety of students with a wide variety of accents), I don't find her all that hard to understand. I also think the defense attorney was deliberately playing up his difficulty in understanding her dialect, to a point which was getting really close to the line of deliberate race/class baiting, and deliberate public humiliation. The "can you read your own letter" routine struck me the same way. The discussion of what rolling on wet grass sounds like, on the other hand, struck me as a more appropriate, if understandably frustrating for the witness, exchange, since it got directly to the facts of the case, and to questions of perception and memory and how we draw conclusions given limited evidence. The whole thing is tricky, since a defense attorney's job is to defend his client, possibly up to and including making ad hominem attacks on the prosecution's witnesses, but some of West's behavior strikes me as ethically questionable -- and at least as worthy of comment, and criticism, as Jeantel's. (Admittedly West is not entirely responsible for what his daughter does, but the ice-cream-cone celebration instagram shot -- and caption -- she posted could fairly be taken, I think, as evidence of a complex of cultural dysfunctions that are also serious: the elite's easy disdain for the less-privileged, a culture of competition that sees humiliating an opponent -- even a girl of approximately your own age -- as appropriate, rather than as, at best, an unfortunate necessity of a difficult job. Given a choice of finding Rachel Jeantel or Molly West in my classroom, I'd definitely take Ms. Jeantel ).

    1. That said, yes, I think that ultimately Jeantel would be better off for having a wider repertoire of possible responses (and a wider variety of linguistic and behavioral codes) to draw on as she navigates the world. I'd like to see her in a college classroom, and I'm not convinced that she would be a student who fights her teachers every step of the way (though I recognize that such students exist -- in all colors and genders, though their modes of expressing their resistance may vary in a way that correlates to some extent with background/culture/gender -- and are tremendously frustrating). Actually, given the degree to which she did manage to play by the rules to a considerable extent (being outwardly respectful for the most part), while also holding fast to her own agenda (including both getting across the story of her friend's death from her perspective and preserving a degree of personal dignity without in any way seeking to make herself the center of attention), all while under extreme pressure, I'm seeing more promise -- including a pretty high degree of self-discipline/self-control -- than anything else. She does need some tools -- including, definitely, a better command of standard written/spoken English, and how it differs from her home dialect -- but, given those tools, I suspect she might go far.

  7. Well, I just don't agree. Sure, I'll give you that it is non standard. Absolutely. But also ineffective in getting my students success in the places they say they'd like to be successful.

    Success is different depending on the color of your skin? That's interesting.

    I don't know anyone like that though, whose version of success is so different.

    The people I meet want to live in safe places, send their kids to good schools, schools that will help them get higher test scores and to do well in college. They want to get jobs and get promoted in hospitals, banks, offices where they have to use a version of English that is called Standard English.

    I think Rachel would like to see Mr. Zimmerman get convicted. I still hope that happens, but I think she'd be able to help the prosecution more effectively in getting that ending more if she communicated more clearly. I am betting she would rather be an effective witness towards making the case against the defendant.

    Is she an effective communicator where she lives? I bet she is. But the Rachels I meet want to succeed in places where they are not communicating very effectively.

    I'm not interested in a discussion about how fair that is. I am just talking about what it. We can help the ones that want help, but they of course have to do the heavy lifting.

    1. I think that many people claim that they want to succeed (I mean who doesn't, aside from some who are content or in denial), but not everyone realizes that to do so might mean adopting a rhetoric, an ideology, and a stance that can alienate them from their home community with no guarantee of there being a new community to join. I see students who come in wanting to get jobs and knowing that to do so, they must change their rhetoric. Not everyone feels comfortable when their identity (language is tied to identity, after all) is in question and they have to assume a new identity of an educated, which is often equated with "white status and power." It isn't an easily defined and articulated process for some. And so it isn't as simple as doing the work and getting the grades because sometimes education involves an identity crisis.

      While I successfully codeswitch between languages (I am a mix of Asian/African/Caucasian), some of my family and friends whom I have "left behind" will always view me as a "traitor" who "became white" because I chose a different life. That isn't easy. And sometimes, unconsciously, I know that when someone deliberately 'bates' me, I revert to home rhetorical styles to deliberately distance myself from the perceived attacker. Sometimes I revert to being a as sullen as this young woman because I feel powerless and attacked. But I also recognize that in certain situations, I have to "sound" educated to be more persuasive and have learned to control my inner sullen teen. She seems to not have had that opportunity yet.

    2. Most of my students are very aware of the way people in their community have turned speaking correctly into a "white" thing. And many of them are angry about it. And they share experiences, the more successful, about how they, too, switch up their linguistic codes depending upon the situation and the company they are keeping. One student actually got a separate cell phone for her new work friends, because she did not want them to hear the way she sounded on her voice message for her neighborhood friends, and vice versa.

      But I don't stand down from using the term "correct English." We learn the "rules" of standard English. People want us to use terms they understand, and that will be understood out in the world. They know that when they can speak "properly" (this is the term most often used by my inner-city students) they will be taken more seriously in most of the places they have to go when they leave their neighborhoods. Language develops, it changes, it grows. Hence the length of the OED. But at any given time, there is a standard that is considered to be correct. It's what keeps the dictionary people in business.

      And in terms of trying to help my students get where they say they want to be, it is all just semantics.

    3. That makes sense to me, Bella. One of the complications with which we deal as professors is that our whole neutral, descriptive/carefully non-prescriptive way of talking about linguistic codes is part of our own educated/self-consciously intellectual dialect, and may well be at odds with what students are hearing at home not only from those who accuse them of trying to get beyond themselves/be white, but also from supportive folks who want them to have opportunities the supporters themselves didn't have. A lot of entry-level college students, and perhaps particularly the less-prepared ones, are still at the right/wrong answer stage, and part of our job is to nudge them along into more complex critical thinking. Figuring out exactly when and how to do that is part of the challenge.

  8. Where is Barbara Billingsley when you need her?
    (Jump to 0:57)

  9. "There is no 'correct' English. There is standard English, and nonstandard English."

    Sez who?

    1. Linguists ("code-switching" is, I believe, also originally their term)? And most writing/comp teachers educated and/or active in the last 3 or so decades?

      The best example I've seen: as a college student, I worked as an intern for the local Public Defender Service. My immediate boss was an African-American graduate of Harvard Law School. I'm not sure where she was originally from (somewhere in the U.S., I'm pretty sure), but when she spoke to me (a white, Ivy League undergrad) and to her colleagues (of varying backgrounds, but c. 50% African American) she spoke an English that sounded normal/standard/uninflected to me -- in other words, more or less the same dialect I did. Once or twice, however, I heard her speaking with clients (or clients' mothers), trying to convince them to turn themselves in rather than forfeit bail, or perform other unpleasant but necessary actions. Most of those clients were African-American, but/and considerably less educated than she, and she spoke a completely different dialect with them than with me -- one that I could barely understand, but that served to establish her credibility (ethos, in rhetorical terms) with her audience (the client/client's family) and so was far more appropriate to the situation than the dialect she spoke with me would have been. I've seen African-American judges make a similar switch in dialect from the main body of the trial (standard English) to sentencing (using a dialect the judge and defendant share to get the point across that the defendant can, if (s)he chooses, straighten up and fly right).

      If Jeantel lives her life primarily within her present community, she's probably got the linguistic/communication tools she needs. If she wants to have a wider variety of opportunities (and/or be prepared to cope with unexpected situations such as the present one) she does need to become more comfortable with the linguistic and behavioral codes of those who hold power in the U.S. (and who therefore get to set the standards for others who exercise at least a modicum of power). That doesn't make her present communication style wrong, just limited (and limiting).

  10. I was working in another room and overheard the "yes,sir's", so I decided to check it out; and I was hooked. I found myself rooting for her.

    First of all, I smell reality show: :"Jeantel and her friends". She's a big hit! She'll be rich and famous!

    But the main thing is: the whole cross-examination exchange made me despise the "knock-knock-who's-there" jerk of a defense attorney. We saw the spectacle of a well-off, privileged white guy with an advanced degree mercilessly bullying a poor, uneducated, borderline literate African-American teenager. Milking the difference in socioeconomic status for all it was worth, trying (not very successfully) to use class to intimidate, to get her to "submit", to lend support to his speculative b.s. theories. I have never been on a witness stand, but there's no way I would have put up quietly with half the lawyer b.s. she took patiently.

    It wouldn't surprise me a bit if it turns out most of the jury feels similarly, so in that sense--in drawing more sympathy than the defense attorney could ever hope to inspire--Rachel was a very effective communicator.

    1. I hope so. I think part of the reason this got me the way it did is because I want that bastard to go down.

    2. May it be so. The "jury of mothers" may, in fact, work out well in this regard (though I'd like to think that any decent human being would have been able to empathize with Jeantel; sadly, evidence suggests otherwise). At this point, I not only want to see justice for Trayvon Martin; I also really want to see West experience the consequences of his own choices.

      But I really, really hope she doesn't end up on a reality show, or otherwise a "celebrity." I think one thing she's got going for her is that she doesn't want to be the center of attention, but she can handle the situation given a good cause. She's got spunk, and a spark, and I very much hope that she'll receive some concrete support in nurturing and directing those strengths.