Linguistic Policing and the Star Witness, Miss Rachel Jeantel

When an estimated 380 million people the world over speak English[i], it may come as a surprise that linguistic policing is prevalent. But as the trial of George Zimmerman demonstrates, command of the English language is still a litmus test, even in the United States, a country known for linguistic and ethnic diversity. The United States is also a country where communities, and, in some cases, states have advocated for English-only as policy. One consequence of this kind of fixed attention to linguistic output is linguistic policing. Many times, individuals seen as non-native to the U.S. are singled out for scrutiny by this sometimes unwritten policy that is often implemented in schools and the community at large under the guise of preserving the heritage of the United States, or at least American English. Linguistic policing is dangerous due to the fact that often, the process involves ascribing certain negative characteristics, or values, to individuals that may unduly mark them as deviant, unintelligent, uneducated, poor, or working-class people. When so labeled, these individuals may be at risk for marginalization, exclusion, incarceration, isolation, or genocide.

One recent example of linguistic policing is the criticism heaped upon Rachel Jeantel, the Floridian teen whose working-class dialect, and coastal patois reflected her multi-ethnic heritage. Miss Jeantel’s speech, reflected more than her roots, but also her location in society as an urban teen, engaged with the everyday life of her peers. Her speech, in this context, is her safety net, connecting her to a community. She gets little regard for being a friend to the youngster who asked her for help as he was being pursued by a strange man. Miss Jeantel understood Trayvon Martin’s concern about “a creepy-ass cracker” following him as he tried to get home. She did not need a translator. She cautioned the young man that the man in pursuit might be “a rapist”.

Through the use of English, aided by wireless bluetooth communication, she attempted to cast a linguistic net of safety to the teen-aged boy shortly before he lost his life. Suspecting that her friend was in danger, in plain English she told him to “Run, run.” And she recounted this experience on the witness stand, in plain English. Perhaps this fact of English spoken teen-to-teen was what the jury found distracting. This plain English spoken by the star witness made one juror feel sorry for Miss Jeantel’s lack of education, while at the same time eroding the credibility of Miss Jeantel’s testimony, according to the juror who spoke of this during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. That so many people seemingly were so distracted by Miss Jeantel‘s testimony is an indicator that class and race are still relevant topics and therefore should be analyzed by humanities scholars interested in American cultural politics.

Society’s disciplinary gaze turned toward the seemingly undisciplined body and mouth of Miss Jeantel, dissecting her appearance, her words, and her tone on the witness stand. Such analysis came, perhaps, at the expense of intensive scrutiny of the internal, and mundane, processes that were used to constitute the jury, and to present evidence to that jury. The justice system, as a focus of attention, dissolved under the scrutiny of Miss Jeantel, her size, and her speech, even though she stated in court to the defense, “I understand English really well.”

The reality of linguistic policing is that it demands an ideal world, rather than an imagined world. What is hoped for is an ideal community. A community consisting of young people who speak well; who are svelt, always polite (but especially polite to the hegemony). To criticize Miss Jeantel for the way she talks is to demand that Florida be Utopia. What would you say to a friend who called you for help while being pursued by a stranger? How would you speak the words, “Run, run?” If you were to be put on the witness stand to recount the events leading up to the last moments of your friend’s life, would your tone on the witness stand change?

Imagine if you were still a teenager, with little experience of the world beyond your teenaged life. Would the words “creepy-ass cracker,” take on a different meaning? Rather than interrogate words, we may interrogate laws that seek to disenfranchise others from attaining the kind of education and experience that would better prepare them for encounters with the Other. Linguistic policing, does not facilitate change, it stifles change. It turns the gaze into a predatory probe.

What is known about the gaze is that it seeks to attach meaning to subjective experience in an attempt to classify. Miss Jeantel’s physical appearance and speech have been analyzed via Twitter and other forms of media, at the detriment, perhaps of focusing on how the prosecution and the defense crafted the jury and presented their respective cases. This is because command of the English language is often viewed as an identity marker. To speak English well is to be a good person, someone who is intelligent, educated, and therefore cultured. Similarly, one who commands English well is also thought to be integrated into society;[ii] however, debate exists as to what degree this integration, assimilation, or acculturation occurs, or is important when it comes to the business of everyday life.

In the case of the tragic Zimmerman trial, the setting of Florida reminds us of the diversity of America, and its history of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. A diverse linguistic code, embedded in history, is the legacy of the United States of America. This legacy of pain and pride is part of this nation’s collective heritage. When separated from history, we can decide how to study and to interrogate the socially-constructed formations that are the remnants of a colonial past.

[i] For an interesting look at the future of English, read Baugh and Cable’s book, A History of the English Language (2002).

[ii] Acculturation is a topic covered in the book Culture and Identity: Life Stories for Counselors and Therapists (2011).