Rachel Jeantel & respectability politics

Jul 01, 2013 @ 10:40 am | By TheFeministGriote | 39 Comments
“what i learned from the internet today is that if you’re a Black person who is on the phone, while walking home, minding your own DAMN  business & you’re about to be gunned down by a racist, please make sure you’re on the phone with a Black person who has the credentials of Barack Obama or Michelle Obama. because at your trial, your killer isn’t going to be on trial, the credentials, looks, & speech of the LAST person you were on the phone with who didn’t kill you, is going to be on trial. i think that covers today’s lesson. Dear Black people just say NO to white supremacy. good night. love & light” –The Feminist Griote FB page


In the book Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry she writes, “The personal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of Black women are inherently political.” Last week as the world watched the beginnings of the Trayvon Martin case it appears Black female citizenship was also on trial, and that respectability politics was the judge, jury, and executioner. At one point it appears that both racist white media and self-loathing Blacks had forgotten that Rachel Jeantel wasn’t on trial. Rachel is the 19 year-old young woman who had the misfortune of being the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin, before he was brutally murdered, by George Zimmerman. It appears that many people have a problem with the space that Rachel occupies and what that space signifies to Black culture as well as those outside of Black culture.

A year ago we were rallying and demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. A year ago, many people were changing their profile pics on Twitter/FB showing themselves pictured in hoodies, a statement of solidarity. #IamTrayvonMartin was being hashtagged for months among the #BlackTwitter sphere. We were all genuinely outraged by the murder of Trayvon Martin. I was in grad school at the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin and remember having a passionate debate in one of my social work classes about the case. A white colleague of mine made some very offensive and racist comments in class. I found myself an individual Black person having to defend the humanity of all Black people on the planet. (Shortly, after that horrific racist experience, I went to see the school’s licensed clinical social worker and was in therapy for 9 months. The micro-aggression and overt racism of grad school was literally eating away at my spirit).

As a Black person living in the United States it was hard not be impacted by the killing of Trayvon Martin. Fictive kinship took over all of us and we all  wanted justice for Trayvon’s senseless death. A year ago our fictive kinship was fueling our activism, but as Melissa Harris-Perry reminds us in Sister Citizen “The flip-side of pride is shame, and like racial pride, racial shame is an important political emotion…shaming is a profoundly modern exercise of power because only the inferior can feel ashamed.” We have officially focused our campaign that should be focused on justice for Travyon Martin’s family, to now policing Rachel Jeantel for not meeting our expectations of what a “perfect key” witness in the killing of an unarmed man-child should look, act, and sound like.

I know some of you may be wondering how did we  go from #IamTrayvonMartin to publicly ridiculing and dehumanizing Rachel? The answer is white supremacy. White supremacy dictates that to be human is to be white, and all others must audition for their humanity and citizenship. The disparaging comments about Rachel Jeantel just prove how pervasive and corrosive white supremacy is and how too often POC willingly participate in it.

White supremacy also asserts that in order for POC to be taken seriously they must pass”the test.” The test being acceptable and pleasing to the white palette . As POC we all fall victim to the white gaze. The white gaze dictates that when I am in view of or being watched by whites, I must perform my Blackness in a very narrow way. I can’t be too Black, too loud, and I must speak English in a way that doesn’t draw any suspicion or cause any irritation. I must be smart, but not too smart, because I don’t want to be labeled as “uppity.”

So here we have Rachel Jeantel who is female, a woman, Black, over weight, and dark-skinned. Rachel has all the qualities that make a person unlikable in our white supremacist patriarchal society. Because of the white gaze Rachel isn’t allowed to be an individual. White supremacy doesn’t afford POC the luxury of being an individual. However, Paula Deen is allowed to be an individual. An individual who happens to have an isolated “problem” with racism and fostering a hostile work environment. Amanda Bynes is allowed to be a one-person train wreck. Miley Cyrus is given full permission to appropriate Blackness. She is allowed to wear Blackness like a custom similar to the costume of Nikki Minaj she wore last Halloween. Both of these white women are allowed to fall short on an individual level without it not impacting all of white America. Rachel Jeantel didn’t have that right, because Black women are public property. Anyone is allowed to comment on our hair and touch our hair with or without our consent. Everyone is allowed to critique our attitude, parenting, our marriage rates, and virtually anything else. It is that very thinking that turned Sweet Brown into a meme.

Rachel has the heavy burden of representing all 40 million Black people in the U.S. therefore, she must be perfect. Perfect being she must act, look, and sound like an exceptional negro. 

Exceptional Negroes know how to speak well and know how to perform in their Blackness in the presence of whites in a way that doesn’t make white people uncomfortable. Rachel fails the respectability politics test with flying colors. Many people even likened her to the fictitious character “Precious.” This is what happens when POC fail to divest from white supremacy thinking. We police other Black people and judge them harshly for not being desirable Blacks. However, the funny thing is even desirable Black people who have the Ivy League pedigrees still don’t get the respect they deserve. Even when this exceptional negro becomes President of the United States. Being an exceptional negro will not shield you from being labeled “The food stamp President,” “Tar Baby,” or stop a governor from wagging her finger in your face. Being an exceptional negro will also not shield your life partner who is also an exceptional negro, from being labeled an “angry Black woman” or your “baby momma.”

Trayvon Martin was brutally murdered because George Zimmerman believed that Trayvon fit the stereotype. Zimmerman believed that a Black man in a hoodie walking in a gated community was surely on his way to doing something nefarious. Because society has taught Zimmerman to fear Black male bodies that is why Zimmerman felt justified, in killing Trayvon. The facts are clear Trayvon Martin was armed with a sidewalk and Zimmerman had a gun. Clearly, Trayvon was the more dangerous one and therefore had to be killed.

As the trial of Trayvon Martin continues let us not lose sight of who should be on trial, and who is missing from the trial. Black respectability politics has no place in the trial. Remember the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

For more of my thoughts on this subject please read the awesome Gradient Lair blog


39 Responses to “ Rachel Jeantel & respectability politics ”

  1. Another well written, well thought out, informative piece. Thank you for writing it. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one repulsed by the attacks on the young girl testifying in the Trayvon Martin case. She deserved support and not ridicule.
    Bravo. Excellent piece.

  2. I could not have agreed more with this article. Sometimes our people of color lose sight of what is the most important. An innocent black young male was gun downed while minding his own business, yet they are focused on Rachel’s speaking abilities, her complesion, and her looks (some went as far as posting a picture of her next to a gorilla). I am sure Rachel did not expect to be a representative for the black race, or to be ridiculed by the entire country, blacks and whites by testifying. The fact is it does not matter whether a person of color speaks like Obama or Rachel, racist caucasians will still find a reason to discredit their accomplishments or think they are an ignorant black person.

  3. […] need look no further than the savaging of Rachel Jeantel – the last person to Witness Trayvon Alive. (See also Rachel Jeantel: Through A Glass […]

  4. While this is a mostly flawless blog post, I can’t help but think that Paula Deen/Miley Cyrus/Amanda Bynes (who besides their whiteness also have celebrity in common) may be poor examples of day-to-day instances of white privilege (or societal treatment of “normal” white people), as they are often used. While your argument is a good one, It’s probably the case that their being celebrity millionaires is more conducive than their whiteness to holding a privileged position.

  5. Ellsworth Fremont | August 18, 2013 2:21 am

    Can you honestly believe that any white person would show respect for Jeantel after she said (in reference to a racial slur indicating whites) ,

    “That’s what we call white people.”

    If someone calls YOU or a member of your race, a racial slur, do you respect them?

  6. Oh, for the love of little apples, Ellsworth Fremont. I am a white person. I respect Rachel Jeantel. Because I have enough basic sense and decency to realize that attempts to draw equivalences between “cracker” and racial slurs with long and ugly histories of dominance and violence are obtuse, disingenuous racist dogwhistling. So insofar as I would hope that white people are not universally disgracing themselves, yes, I would hope that The Feminist Griote could honestly believe that white people would show respect for Rachel Jeantel.

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