Regardless of your stance on the Zimmerman trial, we can all agree that it took great strength and courage for the friends, family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin – the 17-year-old who was shot and killed while walking home in Sanford, Florida – to take the stand.
Four people (one friend and three relatives) testified regarding the events that took place that gloomy February evening as best as they could remember. But one witness stands apart from the rest – not because of her eloquent way with words, her outstanding intellect or her coy demeanor – but for her ability to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
Rachel Jeantel is perhaps the most talked about witness from the Zimmerman Trial, making headlines for her demeanor on the witness stand and for using phrases such as “creepy ass cracka.”
Rachel revealed the events of that February evening and engaged in a respectful, but entertaining back and forth with defense attorney Don West; she maintained her composure and recalled perfectly the events that, unbeknownst to her, led up to the shooting death of Trayvon Benjamin Martin. She was calm, cool and collected and though some white folks may struggle to understand her, there’s a lot we can all learn if we pay close enough attention.
We’ve compiled 5 things white people can learn from Rachel Jeantel.
1. Words like “cracka” and “nigga” don’t carry the weight we’ve associated with them.
When asked about Trayvon’s use of the word “cracka,” Rachel explained that in her community, and in so many around the country, the word carries a much different meaning than the one originally assigned to it. Cracka, which offended many because of its racist roots, is a word Rachel says she uses to denote a person acting with authority, i.e. a police man, security guard, even a neighborhood watchman.
She revealed the major difference in the words, which to white people probably seems to be a minute point. In her interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, Rachel spoke about Trayvon’s use of “creepy ass cracka” or “nigga.” The difference? To her, it’s apples to oranges. Cracka isn’t offensive, cracker is; nigga isn’t a hateful word, nigger is. There was no malice in Trayvon’s words, he just wanted to get home without being followed.
2. Rachel Jeantel isn’t a liar, she – and many African American children like her – know a little something about respect.
Rachel Jeantel was criticized and called a liar after it came to light that she had left bits of the facts out of her testimony. The truth of the matter is, Rachel only omitted the bits of the story that she felt would hurt Trayvon’s mom Sybrina Fulton; she left out words – words that black children are taught not to use around adults. Imagine that! A teenager with respect.
Jeantel was faced with a challenge often overlooked; she had to go against everything she’d been taught growing up, to tell “the whole truth,” which was riddled with strong language. Were the facts of her testimony changed by her omission of words? Not in the least. Regardless, Jeantel threw caution to the wind, told her story in its entirety and held fast to the truth.
3. Everyone grieves differently.
Rachel was scrutinized for not going to Trayvon Martin’s funeral and struggling to face Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. Put yourself in her shoes: you’re a 19-year-old dealing with the death of a close friend and trying to come to grips with the fact that your’s is the last loving voice he heard.
Jeantel wasn’t ready to see her friend in a casket. She hadn’t prepared to explain to his mother what the last moments of her baby’s life were like. Can you blame her? Death is complicated; it affects each person it touches differently. White culture teaches us to put on a brave face in the wake of death. I grew up being taught to say my goodbyes, hope the person was in a better place and move on.
There is no one way to grieve and it doesn’t help that she and the family of Trayvon Martin were hardly given a time in which to do so. Rachel had not yet dealt with her feelings of sadness, anger and maybe even guilt before being called to testify.
4. She’s not the hostile ghetto black girl everyone painted her to be.
Rachel took the stand as the defense’s star witness and found herself being made to look like a fool in the public eye; she became a joke to Don West and an entire race of people who looked on at the trial from the comfort of their cookie-cutter homes in the suburbs; people who have never, and will never, encounter the other Rachel Jeantels in this world.
Countless people claimed she “didn’t want to be there” and you know what? She probably didn’t. She probably didn’t plan on describing in great detail the last conversation she had with Trayvon Martin or being talked down to for hours on the witness stand or being on the receiving end of the train wreck that was Don West’s now infamous knock-knock joke.
She’s not hostile, she’s a teenager who, like any young person, easily could have found a better way to spend that sunny Florida afternoon. She was hurt, she was frustrated, but she was certainly not hostile. Rachel is the product of her environment, an environment which she has been assigned to because of the elitist nature of this great nation of ours.
5. Rachel’s not uneducated, we are.
Rachel is not in fact the uneducated girl Don West and the Zimmerman team painted her to be. She’s a young girl with an underbite, street smarts and a bit of a southern accent.
She speaks the same language we speak – the Queen’s English, as her opposition would say – with a little flare. She speaks the way you talk when you’re among friends. She uses words you don’t understand because frankly, you’re from a different world than Rachel. She says what you’re thinking, but too afraid to say.
It is us who are uneducated for being so quick to judge Rachel, forgetting that this is a nation of many cultures.
Comparing Rachel’s recent appearances side-by-side would be like comparing night and day. On the stand, though she was unapologetically herself, she did her best to be the Rachel Jeantel Don West, and white people around the country, could understand – she spoke slowly and watched her words, remained poised and respectful.
Weeks later, Rachel appeared on Piers Morgan and let it all out! She was the same Rachel we met in court that day, but amplified. She was vibrant, cheerful and in a much better place than before. She came ready to take whatever was thrown at her and fielded questions like a champ.
Both appearances gave a look inside a girl who is like so many other young black girls out there; she has so much to offer the world if only the world would sit back and listen.
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