Rachael Jeantel (via YouTube)

This week, Rachael Jeantel is my patron saint of Black girls. Usually I give that title to Kerry Washington for her Bronx-meets-Spence-meets-Hollywood swagger. Or Lolo Jones (who stupidly and confusingly did this to Jeantel) for her athleticism, faith, and “beat the odds” story trifecta. They represent so much to me, chiefly code-switching under pressure and blatant fabulousness. But I think Jeantel has earned the title this week.

In these seven days so much has bubbled up from the swamp of America’s race relations. In one corner, the SCOTUS essentially declares racism over by striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They also handed out a Laodicean non-ruling on Affirmative Action. In the next, we have Paula Deen and her use of the N-word coupled with her alleged treating her employees like slaves while also imagining a blissful plantation wedding with Blacks serving in little white jackets—in my imagination, she’d unwittingly have recruited Nat Turner to serve the mini shrimp and grits canapés. And finally, we have the George Zimmerman trial, where Jeantel was on the witness stand.

Jeantel, who was on the other end of that call, was on the witness stand. Being the witness in a high profile case never looks easy, but in this instance seeing her hits close to home because the words being used against her are the very things I fear as a fellow Black girl.

It’s not just a fear; it’s more of a paranoia that jumps out unannounced to make me hyperaware of just being me. It’s the fear being accused of being surly, ghetto, angry, or having an attitude. Those words hurt and debase our experiences. They allow us to be written off as a neck rolling, finger popping, ’round-the-way caricature right next to the welfare queens, the Uncle Toms, and the mammies.

Seeing her on the stand reminds me of all time times I had to fight my way out an assumption.

Like when I first moved to New York and left my keys in my apartment after a day of Target shopping. So, there’s me on my stoop surrounded by bags of pillows and sheets, wearing some getup from Urban and probably one of these Longchamp totes everyone carries. I’m sure I looked suspicious. And I’m being serious. I actually went out of my way not to ask people to let me in, fearing some unforeseen outcome started by a misunderstanding. I called my roomies and waited. But then I got tired and reached for the door when someone breezed through. But what happened next was not breezy.

My friendly neighbor jerked the door from my hand and asked what I was doing. I slid my shades up and cheerily introduced myself as the new neighbor from apartment 63 and I reached out my hand to shake hers, but she wouldn’t take it. Fine, I thought, maybe that was naïve of me. I then shared that I was locked out and was waiting on my roomies to come back. She snarled back that burglars plagued the building and that I don’t have to get an attitude with her. I, shocked, squeaked out that I lived there and asked how I was “giving attitude” by stating that? I don’t think she liked that because then she, even more loudly, said that I needed to stop getting an attitude and that because I was getting an attitude, she wouldn’t let me in.

So there I was, a proposed burglar with an attitude on the verge of tears. A few minutes later an actually friendly neighbor let me inside and let me put my things in his apartment while I waited. I sat outside my door confused and retracing what I did wrong, wondering if I really needed an attitude check.


My attitude face.

A year later, I found myself at a gig where despite my cheery “good mornings” and “how are yous,” I heard rumblings of my being “the Black girl with the attitude.” I must note, I was not only the only Black girl, but also the only person of color, so I knew they were talking about me. Oddly, the folks saying this weren’t ever that nice to me, but in the moment I didn’t care about that, I cared about making them like me; I cared about not being the Black girl with the attitude. My solution was to be so nice it hurt. I sent links to one about his favorite band, I took lunch with the other and asked thoughtful questions about their stories, and through it all I never stopped smiling.

That didn’t matter though, everything I did was thought of as aggressive. Eventually they stopped gossiping about my “attitude” and said it directly to me when they were informing me of my uppityness. What did I do? I smiled and brought in candy for the candy dish, of course.

Both times, I was so neutered by the accusation of having an attitude or being Black and angry, as my human ability to emote was taken as opportunity for someone to put me in my place.

But in this moment, seeing Jeantel be herself while the Internet is filling up with articles about her skin color, size, dialect and socio-economic background and while also dealing with a defense that questions her ability to speak English is showing me someone who’s not folding. It’s showing me someone who is strong, and not in a “strong Black woman” frame, but in her ability to speak her truth from her hyper-examined perch — and I can only imagine what it’s like there.

And for that very reason, along with her laid bangs and tri-lingual tongue, I hereby name Rachel Jeantel as my new patron saint of Black girls.



This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more
Cambrey Thomas on XOJane!

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  • Bar2

    Ms Martin, Trayvon’s mom, is the embodiment of black female strength. Her testimony today is an example of how you conduct yourself in a court of law. She LOST A SON and managed to maintain calm and cool in order to help Trayvon. Rachel just did not care. She is a trainwreck and she is 19, not 10. She is a grown WOMAN. I have no time for her attitude. Ms Martin is the patron saint of black women not Rachel court nails. Let’s raise the bar here.

  • Camille

    Omg. I apologize for this rant but…Can I just say that when I watched this young woman give her testimony I was embarrassed for her. I was embarrassed for her because she was trying to maintain control in a situation that was beyond her comprehension. she was attempting to go toe to toe with well educated, well spoken, well polished white men who were continually patronizing her and maKing a point to have her repeat herself again and again. It seems to me like in her everyday life she would react to someone who was getting on her nerves with atittude, eye roll etc. And as a thirty year old white woman I would probably do the same… those lawyers work hard to rile you up and make you look bad. She was clearly emotional. What bothers me the most about every body’s reaction to her is that people like her are the majority in this country. there are more poorly educated,poor people, of all races then there are a well educated, well polished, well to do people. And that’s not an excuse. That woman should have spoken better english, she is an american. I agree that the system and her guardians have failed her. It is sad that so many people are allowed to fall through the cracks and that there are people who don’t value education or make it a priority for their children and that the people in positions of power aren’t better advocates for the disenfranchised. But that happens everywhere, not just in black communities, but in all poor communities. but what’s worse is that this woman has become a spokesperson for her race. She is not all black people she is one black person and she is her own person. and it is racism that fuels this discussion whether you are her champion or her detractor, one person should not speak for an entire race. They can’t wether they want to our not. Just because someone has a long brown hair, peachy skin and blue eyes doesnt mean they have sh!t in common with me. When I watched the babykilling casey anthony on the stand I did not feel any connection to her as a white person or as a woman. I do not feel that she represented me in any way and i didn’t feel the need to route for her as a fellow white woman. I think she’s guilty and there’s a very good chance that Andrew Zimmerman is guilty but there’s also a chance that he acted in self defense. There’s more to the story than we will ever know and I find it interesting that so many people want trayvon to be completely innocent. Its a racial issue all the way to the bone. Did andrew Zimmerman racially profile trayvon as a criminal or are people racially profiling andrew zimmerman as a racist? I still think oj is guilty but I never met a black person that did (not to say there aren’t any) but I think a prevailing mentality was that people were pointing fingers at o.j. just because he was black. And I think that idea led to a guilty man going free. I think we all suffer from the plague of racism in ways we don’t even realize. Its a very visceral issue that everyone can potentially experience.

    • missrae

      His name is George. Not Andrew.

    • The reason she was having to repeat herself was because she refused to speak up so even the jurors could hear. And you can’t blame the system or her “guardians.” Blame her for her attitude.

    • If Rachael was such a good friend to Trayvon, why did she get so angry and rude when the defense attorney said she’d have to return a second day for more testimony?

    • JP

      Wha-a-a-at, you were expecting manners from a prosecutor on a launching pin toward great career? LOL!

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