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.