Race and Language in the Zimmerman Trial
As George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin progresses, there have been a lot of interesting things said about one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel is the last person to have spoken to Martin alive, and her testimony last week alleged that Martin was on the phone with her when he expressed concerns about Zimmerman following him. Jeantel’s testimony, along with her presence on social networking sites, drew a lot of attention online and in the press that adds another layer to the racially charged nature of the case.
For starters, Jeantel’s testimony, particularly her cross-examination by Zimmerman attorney Don West, was marked by a sarcastic, combative attitude (on both sides) and barely masked contempt (again, on both sides). You can read about it here and watch some of it here, with a few more clips here (where we also learn that you apparently can’t say “ass” on the Today Show), but it’s not particularly easy viewing. Although the way her voice practically drips with acid when she calls West “sir” is pretty great, the exchange is marked by uncomfortable pauses and simmering hostility. Jeantel is clearly uncomfortable, out of her element, and West is obviously squarely in his, hamming it up for the jury, like any good attorney would do.
Secondly, Jeantel’s presence on social networking sites out of the courtroom has also undergone quite a bit of scrutiny, especially this Facebook post, wherein she posts a picture of her “court nails,” and her Twitter account, which, as this article on The Smoking Gun points out, contained a number of references to drinking and getting high that were deleted after her time on the stand.
Granted, it’s a high profile case and all, but to me all this attention seems pretty unkind. And as this article on Salon points out, the level of attention paid to the poor girl makes it seem as though Jeantel is the one on trial. If you look at the comments to most of those articles I linked to, you’ll see people mocking Jeantel for her speech and her typing, accusing her of being inarticulate and unintelligent. Online peanut gallery aside, the amount of coverage in and of itself suggests an interest in her character that strikes me as uncommon for someone who’s just one of many witnesses in this trial. It’s almost as if the internet is interested in doing the defense’s job for it—not that I’m not concerned about the state of mind of a young person who seems that interested in pot and booze, but it’s certainly in the interests of the defense to call her credibility into question.
So why is her credibility and character so interesting to us? I’m certain that at least in part it’s because she seems so out of place in the courtroom. And by “out of place,” I mean that she acts and talks exactly like what she is—a black teenager. Her testimony exhibits a number of the linguistic features of what we in the industry call “African American Vernacular English,” or AAVE for short. And as for her tweets, well, kids will be kids, and that often involves base activities like getting high and typing “u” for “you.”
Far from seeming inarticulate or unintelligent, I think those clips I linked to above, particularly the “wet grass” one, just show someone who’s caught off guard by the questions they’re being asked—maybe someone who doesn’t know that splitting hairs about word choice is a rather common thing in courtrooms. See, thing about courtrooms, is that the people in them (or at least the ones in charge in them) usually speak what we in the industry call “Standard American English.” And Jeantel’s use of AAVE stands out. Coupled with her snarky attitude and the already racially charged nature of this case, this makes her a pretty easy target for scrutiny and upturned noses.
This isn’t to discount some inconsistencies in Jeantel’s story as she’s told it in the year and a half since Martin’s death (although her explanations for these inconsistencies make perfect sense to me personally), but merely to say that I feel bad for the girl. If nothing else, no matter what happens in this case, I can only help that the jury considers her testimony just as seriously as everyone else’s. Because the way people speak and write is not necessarily an indication of their aptitude, and it’s especially not an indication of their character.
If you want to know more:
- In “Language, Race, and White Public Space,” Jane Hill argues, among other things, that minority language use is highly scrutinized in public discourse. She makes the point that people who speak a minority language or dialect are expected to use Standard American English with little or no “errors,” whereas SAE speakers aren’t held to as high of a standard when attempting to use minority languages and dialects.
- One of the “other things” that Hill argues in that article regards what she refers to as “Mock Spanish,” or a particular kind of usage of Spanish by SAE speakers. I’m not going to outline it here because it doesn’t have much to do with what I’ve argued above, but her argument is elegant in its simplicity, and one of those things that you might want to resist at first but once you’ve really thought about it you just won’t ever be able to look at the world the same way again. It’s also pretty much irrefutable, and it’s my honest opinion that if you disagree with it you just might be a bad person. So, yeah, highly recommended.
- If you do happen to believe that the way that people speak and write is an indication of their aptitude or character, particularly with regards to AAVE, William Labov has got a thing or two to say to you. He’s written about how AAVE is in no way an “inferior” or “unintelligent” way of speaking in more places than I can count, so it’d probably be easier to just Google it.
- It’s a little off topic, but it bears mentioning that Don West’s daughter is apparently no better than Jeantel at articulating herself on social media in a way that makes coherent, grammatical sense. Obvious difference between her and Jeantel, though: Molly West is thin, white, and blonde. Another difference: when you parse Jeantel’s tweets, she’s not saying things that make her sound like a total jerk.