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Race and Language in the Zimmerman Trial

July 9, 2013

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.
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11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2013 4:11 pm

    The question for this reply: Do you believe this post is denying racist evaluations of Jeantel, or reinforcing them? Neither?

    Of course media parses key witness personalities and the way they communicate, especially in show trials like Casey Anthony’s or this one. Of course many people believe that AAVE, or slang words more generally, are indicators of being less educated, young, and inarticulate. Of course the internet is going to pick on Jeantel for her nails/skin color/use of “u”. What concerns me about your post, though, is the final line: “the way people speak and write is not necessarily an indication of their aptitude, and it’s especially not an indication of their character.”

    You’re a rhetorician, charged with understanding how values are built in words and context, yet you don’t believe the way we speak and write are indications of character? Maybe you believe that you can, unlike most, stand in a neutral zone and refuse to make judgments of someone’s character or intelligence. But I hope you’ll see, through my response, that you are judging Jeantel, internet users involved, and people who drink/party.

    The way we communicate is an indication of our experiences with language. Our experiences form our personality and communicative habits, which people often understand as representations of character. You can say that we shouldn’t do this, or that a perfect world would be without this kind of evaluation, but the fact remains: we all listen, see, and evaluate others based on our own experiences. What bothers me here is that you’re making the case that this scrutiny of Jeantel is a kind of racism (that she is being picked on extra because she’s black). What you’ve failed to see is that YOU are reinforcing that idea with this post.

    Racism is a label we extend to those we think are motivated to do harm to others primarily, or singularly, by race. What if I call out Jeantel’s lack of standardized pronunciation as uneducated- am I picking on her because she’s black, or is it because she sounds like people I know who never did well in school? Another scenario to ponder: When I send a friend a joking text that says “u r dum”, do you, or Jane Hill, know that I am covertly accessing racist ideas of black uneducated teens? What if I’ve never read any writing by black teens? You say Jeantel is “out of place” in the courtroom, and your reasoning is valid, but why make it all about race and not culture or class? The comparison you made to West’s daughter is uninteresting because she’s not a witness with testimony that could sway this entire case- regardless of her whiteness she is uninteresting to those involved in the case.

    My problem with Hill’s argument, and yours, is that you fail to see how your own values, concerns, and goals are being championed when you evaluate the people and groups involved here. When you call something racist, we focus on race. When you call something lingusitic, we focus on language. Saying that the way we communicate is not an indication of character is naive and unproductive- communication, coupled with action, is how we all come to know character. For instance, I know your character through judgmental snips like “—not that I’m not concerned about the state of mind of a young person who seems that interested in pot and booze”.

    It bothers me that your focus is on the race of the witness when there are interesting linguistic, ethical, and cultural realms to investigate that affect Jeantel’s perceived credibility. And that’s all there is- a decision of credibility made by each of us, understood through our words. When you evaluate the situation in this way, you’re narrowing the scope in a way that makes sense to you, but leaves out people with different experiences. I’m all for dismantling racist bullying, but not by calling others racist. You’re just another internet user deciding that this case depends on race, and that Jeantel is just a “poor girl” we should “feel bad for” because she can’t keep all these white people rules straight.

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      July 11, 2013 5:12 pm

      Hmmm, Chris, this seems unnecessarily harsh to me. I think Matt’s call for a critical look at whether critiques of Ms. Jeantel’s testimony were racially-motivated is a valuable argument, and I don’t really see how it in-and-of-itself reinforces racism. In fact, I think what he has to say is valuable if only because people are already having a conversation about race vis-a-vis Rachel Jeantel’s testimony, and this post offers a way to make that critique more fair and more grounded in a rigorous body of linguistic knowledge. That aside, I get what you’re saying about a critique based on socioeconomic status potentially being more valuable. However, I’m on the fence about this one. I think it’s naive to simply ignore the racial discourse that surrounds this case. I think the better solution would be to include the socioeconomic critique too, but with explicit mention of the fact that many things that people think sound “poor” are similar to the things that people see as sounding “black.” There’s just too much confusion there to ever separate the two completely. What the case reveals to me is one of the dangers of identity categories–we, as a public, must work harder to hear what people are saying without dismissing them because they sound different, and I think that’s what Matt is trying to get at. I think that’s what Labov was trying to get at, too. As for Jane Hill, I’m afraid I’m with Matt on this one. I’ve taught that article for years and it causes more ire than anything else I’ve ever brought into the classroom. But it’s worth it, because indirect indexicality is a BRILLIANTLY conceived idea, and her execution of it is impressive.

      • July 11, 2013 5:49 pm

        My tone could use some brightening and flattery, perhaps. But this post really hit me hard- being in Seminole County 5 miles from the city of Sanford I am continually hearing about the case. My main point is that a rhetorically aware understanding of this situation would consider character, credibility, and aptitude in a way that doesn’t reinforce the narrow scope established by the vague “people already having the conversation”. Certainly, her skin color has much to do with the bullying she’s experienced, but what else? What, other than the use of “u” and the partying that Matt highlighted, contributes to these perceptions? How could we go about assessing or measuring perceived ethos in relation to class, culture, and the like?

        And I’ll read that article again, but I’m not sold on its usefulness. I don’t believe in ethereal indexes of meaning that we covertly access to enforce stereotypes. I will continue to use “no problemo” indiscriminately.

  2. Doug Cloud permalink*
    July 11, 2013 5:02 pm

    Also, this makes me want to teach Bourdieu’s linguistic market all over again because it’s a perfect example of how unequal access to more socially valued discourses manifests itself in the real world.

  3. Matt Zebrowski permalink*
    July 11, 2013 5:29 pm

    Thanks Doug, that’s basically what I’d have said myself. And Chris–thanks for reading and commenting, even though I think there’s some misunderstanding here about some of what I was trying to get at.

    As you both say, I think that there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on regarding class and–as I tried to point out in my post, age–that also of course factors into what’s going on here. But as Doug pointed out, the racially charged nature of the commentary was already there, so I was trying to insert myself into that conversation instead of starting a new one, and the relationship between ideologies about race and ideologies about language and class is too hot of a mess to be fully parsed in 1000 words or less.

    Secondly, yes, I am a rhetorician, and yes, I also believe that the way you speak and write doesn’t indicate character. I don’t see why those two things are mutually exclusive. I don’t think that puts me on some kind of pedestal, and just like any ideal I hold I never claimed to be flawless in my adherence to it, but I certainly think avoiding judgment based on dialect is something to aspire to. And by “way” here I’m obviously parsing out content from manner.

    Said another way, if you think that Jeantel’s pronunciation makes her sound uneducated, I never meant to say that that’s racist in and of itself, but it does potentially gloss over questions of access to higher-status registers. More to the point, to say it hurts the prosecution to bring in someone that talks like that, which is the thrust of many of the comments on the articles I linked to, well…that’s a different story entirely. Uneducated people can obviously be just as credible on the witness stand as anyone else, and it was part of the point of my post to ask why it is that we would assume someone who talks like this is so suspect that their testimony in a trial is potentially damaging to the side that called them as a witness.

    Finally, I don’t think that Jeantel is a poor girl who we should feel bad for because of anything having to do with race. I think she’s a poor girl who we should feel bad for because she’s a kid who lost a friend and no one deserves this level of personal scrutiny, especially with regards to a personal tragedy (I must say, I can’t think of a single person in the Casey Anthony trial who had so many mean things said about them, save for Anthony herself). On top of that, I also think we should feel bad for her because she’s doing the right thing by testifying, despite her own openly stated reservations about doing so. But she stepped up at the request of her dead friend’s family, and she’s getting shit on for it, and that really sucks.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      July 11, 2013 5:38 pm

      I also want to point out that from what I understand, Jeantel ISN’T uneducated–she’s presently in college–and I know nothing about her class background.

      And yeah, Doug, in hindsight Bourdieu’s linguistic market is another great thing that I should’ve included in the “If You Want to Know More.” Same basic idea as the first part of Hill’s argument, but the economic analogy is an incredibly helpful one.

    • July 11, 2013 5:58 pm

      Thanks for writing! I like to think our critical conversation will sharpen your point for other readers. This reply certainly clarified some things for me. However, my word of warning is that your framing, which included things like “exactly what she is- a black teenager” and “THAT interested in pot and booze”, can demean (for some readers, at least) your aspirations of considering the full context of the situation.

      • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
        July 11, 2013 6:58 pm

        I’m glad my response explained some things, indulge me while I explain two more.

        I meant neither of those comments to indicate judgments necessarily. As I wrote, though, I’d considered replacing “a black teenager” with “someone who speaks AAVE,” but I couldn’t think of a good way to organize the post to introduce AAVE first. Basically, though, that’s all I meant. I didn’t mean the “exactly what she is” part to indicate any sort of attitude.

        The pot and booze thing–I can see how it maybe came off like you read it, but if anything I kinda meant the opposite. I meant that while it might be shocking to those of us with some years on Jeantel that she devotes a full third of her online presence to talk of partying and sex and other things that apparently warrant deletion (60-some out of 200 tweets were deleted according to that TSG article), this doesn’t make her a perjurer. The OTHER pot and booze thing (about “base activities”) was meant to be firmly tongue in cheek and to (I guess unsuccessfully) elicit a chuckle. While being shocked is, I guess, in and of itself the result of a judgment, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I think she’s a bad person or even that she should stop doing what she’s doing.

        As for what you replied to Doug above re: what else contributed to the bullying, I don’t really know. To me, race, partying, and typing and acting like a teenager are quite enough things to be judged for. Still, I had no idea that you were so close to where all of this is going on. With your firsthand perspective, what else do YOU think contributes to the vehement reactions she’s elicited?

      • July 12, 2013 12:36 pm

        My grandmother believes there will be rioting in Sanford if Zimmerman is found not guilty. Most of the social media postings around the case are things like “This would not even be news if it wasn’t about race”. Most of my conversations with locals about the case usually ends up centering around racial grudges in Florida, and the ‘clear and apparent’ guilt of the Zimmerman and the police who let him go, rather than the idiocy of the Stand Your Ground law or the evidence of the trial itself.

  4. August 29, 2013 8:12 am

    As a postscript to this interesting post and discussion, John Rickford and a number or other sociolinguists will be holding a round table discussion of some of these issues during the NWAV conference here in Pittsburgh, October 17-20. They will be focusing on the AA(V)E aspect of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony and its uptake — which is not to say that there are not other equally important aspects of the situation, as they would agree. There will also be a session of papers on AAE in education and a plenary address by Valerie Kinloch of OSU on this topic. CMU students who volunteer to help out at the conference will be able to attend for free.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      August 29, 2013 8:53 pm

      Thanks for the info, Barbara!

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