When it comes to our use of the English language, it seems that black people just can’t win, no matter what end of the mastery spectrum we fall on.
This past week Rachel Jeantel, the last person to talk to murdered teenager Trayvon Martin, took the stand in the trial of George Zimmerman, a watchman who is accused of stalking and killing the unarmed 17-year-old in 2012 as he was walking from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla.
Martin’s slaying and the circumstances that surrounded it – the fact that the black youth’s body lay in the morgue for three days before his family learned of his death and the fact that it took months for Zimmerman, who is white, to be charged – rubbed salt on the unhealed wounds of injustice and racism that still scar this nation’s soul.
But suddenly, it wasn’t Zimmerman who was on trial for second-degree murder and a tragedy that occurred mainly because he didn’t follow a dispatcher’s instructions to not follow Trayvon that fateful night.
Suddenly, it was Jeantel who was on trial because she didn’t talk like a Rhodes scholar.
When the 19-year-old began testifying, Twitter was atwitter with disparaging comments about Jeantel’s monotone responses, her use of Ebonics, i.e., “he had said, he had did,” and what critics saw as her lack of education.
The substance of what Jeantel was trying to convey – that substance being the last words that her friend spoke while he was being followed by a wannabe cop – was all but lost.
Then again, I don’t know if speaking like a Rhodes scholar would have helped Jeantel that much – as least not in the eyes of critics who are looking to marginalize her anyway.
All it takes is a look at how many of those same, mostly racist, critics disparage the Harvard scholar who occupies the Oval Office when he speaks.
Obviously, President Obama and Jeantel are worlds apart when it comes to articulating the language. But they occupy the same, schizophrenic universe when it comes to white people using the way they speak to judge either their motives or their intellect.
And they can’t seem to win with these folks.
There’s Obama who, when he began his campaign for president in 2007, was singled out as being a rock star for his articulateness. Even well-meaning people saw his ability to speak as something designed to impress or amuse rather than inform– hence the “rock star” label.
Racists, on the other hand, saw Obama’s ability to speak as part of some scheme to baffle and deceive. They derided him for using a teleprompter – something that is not uncommon for speakers to use – and disparaged him for being “uppity.”
Obama’s education, accomplishments and speaking skills should have earned him praise and trust. But from many of his disparagers – and especially from the spelling-challenged tea partiers – it earned him scorn and suspicion.
Then there’s Jeantel – a young, black woman and Haitian immigrant who critics apparently believed should be held to speaking standards just shy of Obama’s. What makes the insults especially unfair is that Jeantel didn’t speak badly on the stand – I understood everything she said. It’s just that she spoke in the language she knew, Black English, and didn’t code-switch.
Saying that Jeantel was unintelligent because she deigned to speak in a way in which she was familiar is almost like saying a Latino person is unintelligent because he or she speaks limited English.
But I’m wondering if it matters either way.
This persistence on the part of many white people to use the way black people talk to either otherize or condemn speaks to the undercurrent of racism and notions of white privilege that exist in our society.
President Obama tends to be reduced to the sum of his eloquence, or criticized by crazies for using it as a cover for some imagined nefariousness. Jeantel, on the other hand, was reduced to caricature for not enunciating her words in the way that many people thought she should. Black people who talk like Obama are marginalized as enigmas; black people who talk like Jeantel are marginalized as imbeciles.
And I’m left to wonder when or if any of this will ever change.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.