Sunday, August 11, 2013

Retarded Justice: On Language and the Mistreatment of Rachel Jeantel in the George Zimmerman Trial

Olga García Echeverría

As soon as 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel hit the witness stand, everything about her was up for grabs—her blackness, her education, her English, her weight, her facial expressions, her tweets and posts. Isn’t it mind boggling to consider that during the televised State vs. George Zimmerman trial there seemed to be much more discussion and debate about Rachel Jeantel’s character and credibility than there was about George Zimmerman’s?

There is way too much to say about the mistreatment of Rachel Jeantel (both in and out of the courtroom), but I’d like to highlight one of the moments when defense attorney Don West is cross-examining Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon when the encounter that led to Trayvon’s death occurred.

When probing Rachel on the stand, West states that Trayvon “confronted” Zimmerman when “he could have just run home.”

 Jeantel explains that Trayvon was already by his house. “He told me,” she states.

 “Of course, you don’t know” West says with a slight smirk as he reaches for his glass of water on a podium, “if he was telling you the truth or not.”

Rachel, whose unwavering stare seems to see right through West’s courtroom shenanigans, speaks steadily into the mic, “Why he need to lie about that, sir?”

There’s a brief pause while Don West gulps his water, and then proceeds. “Maybe if he decided to assault Zimmerman he didn’t want you to know about it?” Rachel immediately comes back with a monotone, “That’s real retarded, sir. That’s real retarded to do that, sir…”

I’ve gone back to YouTube numerous times to replay that scene. Although many saw Jeantel’s response as further evidence that she was “a train-wreck witness” and “ghetto trash,” I found her response cathartic and in the context of that courtroom, brilliant.

The only other televised moment that had a similar effect on me was the 2008 presidential-shoe-throwing incident. Remember that Iraqi journalist who threw one and then two zapatos full-force at President’s Bush face at a Baghdad press conference? Of course, that was not proper etiquette by a journalist, but weren’t those rebellious shoes flying in the air wonderfully cathartic, even if they did miss Bush’s face? That act of rebellion could not change all the loss of human life (mostly Iraqi) and the behemoth destruction propagated by the Bush administration’s War on Terrorism, but for a moment Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s angry shoes shattered the farce, the theater of Bush’s visit to Baghdad, and so many of us around the world who watched, clapped and said, “Thank you!”

What does one do in the ugly face of Superpower politics? How do you defend yourself or the dead? Maybe one reaches for whatever you have, an angry shoe, for instance, or ghetto lexicon to resist and to remind the world that it’s all a farce. That’s what, in my opinion, Rachel Jeantel did during the George Zimmerman trial by just being herself and for that I’d like to say, “Thank you, Rachel!”  

Khadijah Costley White in “A Letter to Rachel Jeantel” captures my exact sentiments when she writes to Rachel, “You exemplify, in your girth, skin tone, language, and manner, a refusal to concede. You are a thousand Nat Turners, a quiet spring of rebellion, and some folks don’t know how to handle that.”

Definitely many folks didn’t know how to handle Rachel Jeantel on the stand. So much negative attention has been paid to Rachel Jeantel’s speech and body language, yet so little has been discussed in regards to Don West’s. Somehow Rachel Jeantel’s courtroom disposition and teenage-Creole-Black-ghetto-speak speaks volumes, but Don West’s privileged-White-legal-speak, his arrogance, and cultural ignorance does not. I’m sorry, but “That’s real retarded.”

Before I proceed with this blog, I’d like to say a few words about the word retarded. As an English teacher and writer, I believe words are very powerful and I understand why the word retarded is offensive to many. In fact, there’s a campaign to end the use of the R-word. At you can join millions and pledge to not use it.

There are many words I dislike and find offensive, but that does not mean I would join a campaign to eradicate them. I don’t believe in the eradication of words; I believe in the creation, the transformation, and in some cases, the abuse of them, but NOT the eradication. So a warning for R-word sensitive readers; I will be using the word retarded repeatedly in this blog. After all, the verb “retard” has been around (in the written record) since the 1700’s. It’s not the word’s fault that a bunch of retarded medical professionals in the U.S. decided in the 1900’s to attribute the word to the mentally challenged. Like many words, it has several meanings and can be used in a wide variety of ways.


  1. to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.
  2. to be delayed
  3. a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, as in a machine.
  4. slang. Disparaging.
    1. a mentally retarded person.
    2. a person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way
I grew up hearing and saying the word retarded. When something was so stupid that it was ridiculous, we used the word retarded. East LA is full of nothing but gangsters. That’s retarded. Mexicans are lazy and sleep under cacti with giant sombreros on their heads. That’s retarded. Marc Anthony can’t sing God Bless America at a baseball game because he’s a brown-haired Latino and real Americans are blond and blue-eyed and don’t have Spanish surnames. That’s very retarded. Don West asks Rachel Jeantel in English if she understands English after hours of cross examining her in English. That’s outrageously retarded.

I’m not an investigative journalist and this is just a blog, but this past week in a desperate desire to explore and better understand my own outrage over the George Zimmerman trial, the mistreatment of Rachel Jeantel, and my growing obsession with the word retarded, I asked a few people what they thought about the R-word or if they had anything to say about Rachel Jeantel’s response to Don West’s retarded theory.

The first person I asked was the one sitting right next to me. My girlfriend Martiza had this to say: “It’s a demeaning word, but we used it a lot while growing up. I remember the nuns in Catholic school used it on us often. They would say things like, ‘Why don’t you have your thinking cap on? What are you, retarded?’  In regards to the Zimmerman trial, Don West was trying to pin Rachel into a corner. I think he was also repeatedly trying to humiliate her, but she saw right through his trickery. I think she nailed it when she told him how stupid he was being in his suggestion that Trayvon was the aggressor. For those who criticize Rachel’s use of language, I wonder what language, other than her own, was she supposed to use to say what she needed to say, which was basically you’re acting retarded, sir.

Over breakfast in Long Beach I picked the brains of two college professors. Maylei Blackwell from UCLA paused for a second and then succinctly said that Jeantel’s response to Don West was “a puncturing to realness in a context where everything else was political farce.”

Arelene Keizer from UC Irvine shared that “Using the word retard isn’t acceptable, but she’s a young person, it’s the language she speaks in. I thought the attack on her was really a way of avoiding the violence that was going on in the courtroom, the violence that was happening to her, the violence that was a kind of reiteration of the violence Zimmerman perpetrated on Trayvon Martin.”

On Facebook, I harassed one of my favorite writers/thinkers to share her retarded thoughts. Myriam Gurba said, “I do not think that the word retarded is retarded. I do think that it would be retarded to ban the word retarded.” Since Gurba is a high school English teacher, I also asked her if she hears her students using the R-word and what she thinks about this. “I hear kids using the word retarded but I think its one of those words that's so divorced from its origin that kids aren't using it in a hateful way. That's what happens with language. If we were to examine the word origins of lots of words, we might find weird and hateful roots to them but most of us aren't etymologists so we have no idea where our words come from and how they came to be. Like the word jip comes from gypsy, a group historically associated with swindling. I don't think most people using the words nowadays are associating with this stereotype but hey, that's language. It's got longevity and mystery.”

I also texted a couple of friends with, What do you think about the word retarded? Sandra Muñoz, East LA Employment Lawyer, texted back, “I like the word retarded, but I’m not allowed to say it anymore which is really retarded. Remember we went to that gathering where women were urging other women to stop using the word bitch and then we started calling each other bitch ad nauseam? I feel the same thing is going to happen with the word retarded.”

Liz Vega texted: “I am deeply aware that calling someone retarded or using it to describe something is the same as using the word nigger, spic, or any other slur and that’s why I wouldn’t use it in a public sphere…but behind close doors, I think it’s retarded to be censoring ourselves. I also think that the fact that the medical establishment changed mentally retarded to intellectual disability is retarded. This was done because retarded was being used as an insult, so guess what? Censoring made it more powerful!”

In regards to the Trayvon Martin case, what’s more offensive than any word could ever be is a verdict that defies reason: Trayvon (the 17-year-old armed with Skittles) and not Zimmerman (the 28-year-old armed with a gun) was the aggressor. What’s offensive is Don West’s absurd knock knock joke at the onset of the trial. Offensive is the repeated assertion (by both the prosecuting and defense attorneys, and later the jury) that race was NOT a factor in this case. “This is not about race,” said prosecuting attorney John Guy in his closing statement, “it’s about right and wrong.” Is he fricking retarded?

And yet, we have seen the erasure of race in this case on many levels. In her July 16th Lesbrain blog, entitled George Zimmerman/Jorge Zimmerhombre, Myriam Gurba reminds us that “Although the evidence points to George Zimmerman being a bleeding douche afroth with issues he is also…NOT WHITE.” Zimmerman, Gurba points out is part German and part Afro-Peruvian. Posing a series of questions about identity and access to White privilege, Gurba challenges the public discourse on this case, which she describes as currently “stuck in the 1950’s.” Gurba goes on to argue that if we are to equate Zimmerman with a baked salted galleta, we should expand the lexicon to include the complexity of color. “He’s no cracker,” Gurba writes, “he’s a Triscuit.”
I am so grateful to Gurba for the Triscuit metaphor. I feel it empowers us to be able to discuss the complexities of race and power on another level. One of Gurba’s most interesting observations in the Zimmerman case is actually a question: what allowed Zimmerman, who is technically not White to access White privilege? Did his last name erase his “Other” half in this courtroom? In another context, had Zimmerman attacked a White youth, for example, he might have been cast into the role of the aggressive "Other.”

Over coffee yesterday, as I shared the Triscuit metaphor with two young brilliant minds, Jorge and Leslie, we pondered the deeper meaning of the actual colored cracker. Jorge winced and wanted to know what the intricately weaved Triscuit is made of. Leslie wondered if perhaps there is a new generation of people of color who aspire so much to be part of White America that they eradicate (via self-hate and denial) their color and colored history. Not everyone can do that, of course. Not everyone can bleach themselves and pass. But for those who do, may they suffer, said Leslie, “from some kind of Triscuit complex?”
So while Mr. Triscuit sat quietly in the courtroom like a coward, Miss Rachel Jeantel was thrown into the lion’s den with Don West asking a series of retarded questions that were loaded with subtext. Rachel Jeantel might not read cursive, but she sure knows how to read and respond to subtext, insinuation and bullshit. Don West can hide behind legal jargon and “legitimate” English all he wants, but his courtroom tactics and his role in this case stink of old, systematic “creepy-ass cracker” politics that aim to criminalize/dehumanize Black youth everywhere and that ultimately retard justice in America.
Links referenced in the blog:

1 comment:

Amelia ML Montes said...

Orale mujer. Another brilliant post from you. You honor Rachel with your thorough critique of the dominant powers in this clownish court of law. Bravo!