This article was in a way inspired by the Trayvon Martin case and the testimony of his friend Rachel Jeantel. This was also inspired by a previous post from Onome (no I didn’t write it). Personally I don’t care about Rachel’s weight, her hair, or the shade of her skin. But I am one of those people who has a problem with the way she speaks. Communication is 80-90% non-verbal and you are communicating even when you are not speaking. Your facial expression, volume, and cadence of your speech sends messages to people. Observers may be conscious or unconscious of these messages but they will react to them nonetheless. They may react by disliking you, not believing what you say, or assuming negative things about you. It is also frustrating and tiring for people to have to work so hard to understand someone and that can translate into them disliking or avoiding you.
As I have written in previous posts, if the observers are unconscious of the messages you are sending then they will not be able to consciously fight against them. They will just dislike or disbelieve you because they “feel it in the gut” or “just have a bad feeling” about you. In the case of Rachel Jeantel, her manner of speech sent messages to people that she was rude, had an attitude, and perhaps she was unintelligent (e.g., mumbling, droopy eyelids, mouth breathing while listening, rolling eyes and neck etc.). Sometimes BW want to send out the message that they have attitude and “don’t mess with me”, but I don’t think they ever want to send the message, “I’m mentally delayed” (yes people were commenting that she may have a low IQ or learning disability).
What amazed me though was how many people came to her defense by saying her speech is fine, critics are being the “respectability police” or racists by expecting her to speak better, and saying her poor speech is due to her multilingualism (sorry but since when is multilingualism linked to mumbling, speaking too quiet, and not being able to follow instructions to speak louder?). A linguist even went on MSNBC to state that Rachel speaks a perfect Black dialect and was actually articulate! I absolutely hate it that everyone has to be so divided on this based on race or political affiliation instead of being honest and stating she was difficult to hear and understand! Can we not call out suboptimal behaviour just because she is Black? More importantly, my question for Black women is, what’s the point in being articulate in a language that will not improve your life in any way?
Don’t praise people for being talented at doing useless things that can actually harm them! Don’t listen to the self-destructive Black collective that applauds doing the bare minimum, being dysfunctional, and acting differently from everyone who has power in Western countries. Those people are self-destructive because they don’t think Black people can do any better and that Rachel is a typical teenager! Rachel’s manner of speech will only allow her to communicate with a small group of people she lives around, not with the greater society. That means that her life options are limited. The more people you can communicate with the better, but it’s more important to be understood by people who can give you the things you really need or have the power to make your life miserable (e.g., teachers, employers, police, bankers, politicians etc.). Often these people will not be Black or from your community, and even if they are Black, they will speak and understand the same language as White people in similar positions. Or Black people in high positions of power are able to “code-switch“, and act differently in different company. Rachel Jeantel did not know how to code-switch.
It is EXTREMELY important that you are able to communicate verbally and non-verbally in ways that will BENEFIT YOU and not harm you. Rachel’s style of communication did not benefit her one bit on the the stand. In my opinion, a woman looking exactly like her but speaking better would have had a different impact. I don’t think that all overweight Black women are reviled (e.g., plus sized Jennifer Hudson, Loretta Devine, Oprah) so I don’t believe it’s just a weight or skin colour thing. She just didn’t seem pleasant, feminine, or approachable. Many use the argument that she didn’t want to be on the stand…well NO ONE wants to be on the stand yet they conduct themselves better! Another argument is that she was upset that her friend died…well I have seen parents, spouses, and siblings speak about deaths of loved ones and they appear totally different from Rachel! They appear sad and sympathetic, hurt, and you either want to cry with them or admire their struggle to compose themselves. This again may be another instance where a Black woman has chosen to appear hard in order to hide her pain, but this coping mechanism does not evoke sympathy or caring from others…it pushes people away and gives off a negative impression.
My advice to Black women everywhere…don’t be a Rachel Jantel in any way, shape or form…it won’t bring any benefits to you. Be a Jennifer Hudson, Oprah, or Loretta Devine instead. Limiting yourself to “Black English” will be like wearing a ball and chain preventing you from improving your life and getting away from bad influences. If you want to learn more about body language I recommend reading “The Definitive Book of Body Language” or any information you can find about improving your communication skills. Better communication is something that Black women can learn, perhaps even for free, that could greatly improve our lives, image, and power in society.