Did a key witness in Trayvon Martin’s case talk funny, or could we all use some education?

Two weeks ago, a jury of five white women found that neighborhood block-watch captain George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. There are any number of issues that arise from talking about this tragedy, race and stand your ground laws in the US being the most obvious. But the issue that troubles me now as a linguist and someone who grew up in a multiracial household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the language shaming of Rachel Jeantel, the friend Trayvon had been speaking to minutes before he was killed.

Rachel Jeantel giving evidence

At the trial, Rachel testified for more than five hours and as far as I can tell, she is a well-adjusted 19-year old. The only reason for pointing this out is the glut of ugly misguided comments by rightwing pundits and internet commenters barking otherwise. I won’t reproduce any of them here, but let’s just say they show just how far we haven’t come in terms of racism and sexism. What they also reveal, is the uninformed attitudes people hold about non-standard varieties of English; namely, that speaking a non-standard variety reveals a lack of intelligence and credibility.

But all language varieties are systematic and rule-governed. There is nothing inherently better about standard varieties of English communicatively speaking. There is no causal link between speaking non-standard varieties English—which are spoken by a majority of English speakers in the world—and levels of intelligence or even levels of education. The only difference is which variety happens to hold cultural dominance. The fact that Rachel Jeantel speaks what is called Black English or African American Vernacular English only informs that she grew up around other black children.

Presumably, Juror B37 doesn’t know any of that as evidenced by her comments in an interview with Anderson Cooper:

“I didn’t think [her testimony] was very credible. […] But, I felt very sorry for her. She just didn’t want to be there and she was embarrassed by being there because of her education and her communication skills, that she wasn’t a good witness. […] A lot of times she was using phrases I had never heard before, or what they meant.”

So who is the one that is lacking education here? Why is there the assumption that Rachel was embarrassed? Why is there the assumption that she is lacking in communication skills? Is it because she didn’t do her best impression of a white person? It would be bizarre for Rachel to mimic a way of speaking that is unnatural to her. Or at least it should be. So where do these attitudes come from?

Growing up my mother used to constantly ‘correct’ my speech as her mother undoubtedly did to her. But I don’t really understand how she could live in our household and still think there actually is some ‘correct’ way to speak. She spoke some form of Standard English, but my foster brothers Harold, Joe, and Dan spoke Black English, and I spoke a mix between the two.

I can remember asking my friend Will, who was more like my big brother, why he would talk to my mother one way and then say something to his other friends on the phone like, ‘Is you fin to go?’ I was curious one time, so I asked him, “What’s that you’re saying, fitting to? fixing to?” “Naw,” he said, “it’s fin to.” I can’t be sure, but this interaction is probably what started me down the path to becoming a linguist in the first place.

As a university tutor in my hometown, a city which is roughly 40% black and 37% white, I still had students asking me, “Do they just never learn how to talk right?” I pull up a chair when this happens, “Listen up, gang.” As a university tutor in Newcastle and Ourimbah, NSW, I’ve pulled up a chair on more than one occasion as well to discuss non-standard varieties in Australia.

So what do I tell them? Well, the goal is to convey that, scientifically speaking, non-standard varieties of English such as the English spoken by Rachel Jeantel and the ‘proper English’ they’ve been taught are equally communicative. I go over the differences and point out that both have a rule system that must be followed to speak convincingly.

But then, I don’t see why there should need to be that justification. So I end up trying to teach respect. If they have a student that speaks a non-standard variety of English, they need to understand that that student is therefore competent in understanding at least two versions of English: the version they speak at home and other safe environments, and the one forced upon them when listening to you. Respect that.

The alarmingly pervasive idea that standard English equates to ‘good grammar’ and non-standard English equates to ‘bad grammar’ is false and exclusionary. When it’s used in conjunction with intelligence and credibility of a young black woman, it’s reminiscent of the faulty scientific racism of The Bell Curve. But language shaming is currently acceptable behavior in the status quo. It is one of the last bastions of unabashed racism and classism.

So, I cringe when Zimmerman defense attorney Don West says to Rachel, “My question is: when someone speaks to you in English, do you believe that you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” It is clear that West knows Rachel speaks and understands English perfectly well. His willful ignorance is menacing. “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” And then there’s a pause and with an icy stare she says, “I understand. I understand you.”

Early on when the news of Trayvon Martin’s killing was fresh, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera announced his solution to saving all the Trayvon Martins: don’t wear hoodies, don’t dress like a typical black teenager—the same type of patronizing, victim-blaming advice that is afforded to survivors of sexual assault. We don’t need to educate women on how to not get sexually assaulted by wearing less revealing clothing or some other nonsense; we need to teach men not to sexually assault. When it comes to language we don’t need to educate Rachel Jeantel on ‘communication skills’, we need to teach ourselves respect.

John Olstad (@bulletines) is an American living in Australia currently completing a PhD in linguistics at the University of Newcastle.

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