Letter From a Reader: “Where Were Rachel Jeantel’s People?!”

Dear Christelyn,

So as I’m reading threads about Rachel Jeantel’s testimony at the George Zimmerman trial and how she is being judged as “inarticulate” and “ratchet,” and I immediately thought of BB&W. I can already imagine fellow commenters going off about the importance of being groomed/coached if you’re doing any kind of public speaking (in front of an INTERNATIONAL audience no less!), especially for someone so young (she’s like what, 18?) who is dealing with something as heavy and stressful as a murder case.

Where are Jeantel’s people?! I’m talking hairstylist, voice/diction coach, wardrobe, composure training…all those things matter when it comes to a high profile trial. And a sad truth is, the general public (and jury!) WOULD be more forgiving of her rough-around-the-edgeness if she looked like Amanda Knox or Paula Deen. Perception matters, and my heart hurts for this young woman who did not get that memo before being ripped to shreds in that courtroom on global television.

Jeantel was ill-prepared for the reality of being the centerpiece of a racially-charged trial where the world is watching, and the deck is stacked against the victim due to his race (though somewhat tempered by his class privilege, since his parents had the resources to push his story into mainstream media in the first place).

There was so much fundraising that went into Trayvon Martin’s case. They couldn’t afford a super-polished, Olivia Pope type etiquette coach to transform Ms. Jeantel into “star witness” status?

I have also seen complaints that the black folks berating her for her manner of speech and general comportment are being elitist and engaging in “respectability politics.” I understand that point: in a perfect world, it SHOULDN’T matter whether or not Jeantel testifies in broken English, or is visibly nervous and agitated. The truth is still the truth, and Trayvon Martin deserves justice.

However, there is what should be, and what is. You don’t fight a nuclear bomb with a pocket knife. You must make use of every tool in your toolbox, and the shaping of perception is one of the biggest hammers.

I have no desire to pile on this young woman who has already been through so much. However, this moment is so instructive for young people to see that the way you carry yourself does have an impact when dealing with authority figures (particularly those who ARE against you, like defense lawyers whose JOB it is to throw you off-kilter), especially in a publicly televised context.

I’m not saying that anyone needs to become an overly deferent “yessir, nosir” caricature. It’s simply a matter of being coached to develop a strong sense of self-awareness, discernment and etiquette so that you can confidently express yourself in EVERY context, whether hanging out at a club with friends, or running a boardroom, or testifying in a courtroom.

Thanks for providing a platform for me to get that off my chest.


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