Unless you’ve been living off the grid without access to media in any form, you’ve been hearing a lot about Rachel Jeantel: 19-year-old friend of slain teen Trayvon Martin, the last person to speak to Martin before his death and star witness of the prosecution that seeks to prove George Zimmerman is guilty of murder.
If you’ve been hearing about Jeantel, then you’ve been hearing or reading what people say about her: she’s fat, she’s ugly, she’s dumb and she should not be so aggressive towards Zimmerman’s defense attorney.
To all this, I’m giving the biggest, most exaggerated side-eye I’ve ever mustered. Say, what?
There’s a long history of perceived aggression from sassy dark-skinned women in the media, most of whom are fat, that is rife with the residuals of racism, colorism and fatphobia. As Salon.com writer Brittney Cooper wrote, to call out Jeantel for her “attitude” when she’s testifying against a man who shot an unarmed child in cold blood is dismissing the fact that she has every reason to have an attitude.
“These kinds of terms – combat, aggression, anger – stalk black women, especially black women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel,” Cooper wrote, “at every turn seeking to discredit the validity of our experiences and render invisible our traumas.”
Yeah, she may be defensive. She’s being picked and prodded by a veteran attorney who’s trying to make her crack. Yes, she has an attitude. Her friend was murdered, she gets a pass. Of course she’s angry. Everything that’s happened since Zimmerman approached Trayvon should make any rational human being angry.
And there is nothing inherently wrong with Jeantel’s testimony. As a reporter who’s covered several criminal trials that involve young witnesses, I can tell you that many aspects of her interaction with Zimmerman’s attorney are par for the course. Young witnesses tend to be visibly uncomfortable and sometimes combative—out of pain, out of fear or out of general teen angst, it really doesn’t matter. It’s very common for young people to be asked repeatedly to speak up and repeat themselves when on the witness stand. Language is as much generational as it is anything else, and there are barriers between teen witnesses and older attorneys and members of the jury—even in cases that aren’t so fraught with racist undertones.
Stop letting Zimmerman’s attorney fool you: It’s an unstated part of his job to try to make Jeantel look like she’s lying, like she’s slow-witted and like she’s generally not to be taken seriously. He’s putting on a show for the jury and it’s their job (and yours) to read through that.
But beyond the veracity of Jeantel’s testimony, it’s predictably frightening how many people are so comfortable putting the teen—and her looks—on trial, easily forgetting who’s supposed to be on the defensive. Lolo Jones, 30-year-old Olympic track flop, publicly compared her to Madea, a dig at her size, at least, and, less overtly, her skin tone. Memes practically flew around social networks that compared her to Jabba the Hutt, Precious and Gucci Mane. Other photoshopped images insinuated that she was mentally disabled and had a drug addiction.
There is no separation between the willingness to dehumanize Jeantel and the way she looks. To ignore the part that her dark skin and large body have in the public’s apparent disdain for her is to ignore the beauty privilege that finds her look to be distasteful in the first place. I find it hard to believe that she would have been bullied so quickly and with so much relish had she looked more like Lolo—thinner, lighter skinned and generally more of what our society deems “attractive,” and by extension, acceptable.
What’s so crazy is how much mainstream beauty can either serve as a privilege to someone like Lolo or as a means to oppress women like Jeantel, because she’s not even doing something that would even invite commentary on how she looks. She’s not competing on “The Voice,” nor to be crowned Miss America. She’s not trying to smize with Tyra. She’s not even trying to be Instagram famous. Jeantel’s performing a civic duty by testifying to her knowledge of the murder of her friend. Her friend. Who was stalked and killed while she was on the phone with him. Half of y’all lie, cheat and scheme to get out of jury duty, but you have an opinion about how Jeantel should look and act as a witness in the most high-profile murder trial of the year? Come on, stop.
And to this, I’m so confused. What happened to the “We Are All Trayvon” solidarity from just a few months ago? Remember? We all wore black hoodies and posted the pics on our Facebook pages. Trayvon was everyone’s child, at least for a time. Why aren’t we extending that same graciousness and sense of human decency to Jeantel? Does an attitude make her unsympathetic? Do her looks make her that much harder to love, or at least accept? Does her speech make her that much less human and less deserving of the virtual protection of older members of her community? Are we really showing our racist, colorist and fatphobic colors now, at a time when everyone involved in the prosecution need our support and good vibes more than ever? Yeah, apparently we are.