By now, I’m sure you know who Rachel Jeantel is, the cocoa brown, heavy-bang wearing young lady who earned her celebrity as the unassuming central figure in last week’s proceedings of the George Zimmerman trial. Her testimony is now infamous, as is public response to it. In the midst one of the most racially divisive legal events we’ll see in this generation, based off one of the simplest cases of vigilantism shrouded in legalities, her testimony managed to become a lightning rod for criticism. She wasn’t on trial, but she was slayed in the high court of public opinion.
Some of those individuals, too many of those individuals, have been Black folks. Particularly Black women. Coming for her neck, likening her to Madea or Precious, barking down the way she expressed her frustration as if eye rolling and a little sass in the face of confrontation were her patented invention. Then, there’s the way she talks which, judging by social media and blog comments, was displeasing. Because, at 19 years old, we’re all prepped and ready to be the most articulate of witnesses in nationally televised cases. Of course.
The real embarrassment wasn’t in Rachel’s speech, mannerisms or carriage. It was in our collective response to her speech, mannerisms and carriage.
Why are we so ashamed of some sisters and who created these standards of excellence that she failed to meet?
If you’re a Black woman, you’re as much Rachel Jeantel as you are Oprah Winfrey. As you are Dr. Julianne Malveaux. As you are Shonda Rhimes. As you are Nannie Helen Burroughs. As you are all of the influencers, activists, moguls and luminaries we hold in such high esteem because they are the successes that make us proud.
But we don’t get to pick and choose who’s in the sisterhood. And if one of us isn’t carved from the Michelle Obama mold, it doesn’t make her any less worthy of our support, encouragement or empathy.
We harbor a venomous distaste against Black women in the public eye who remind us of the lower echelons of African Americana—immigrants, hoodrats and chicks who embody what we’re trying to get away from rather than the ones who are where we’re trying to get. They’re ratchet. They’re ghetto. They put on display the rough edges of Blackness we don’t like to see, especially in mixed company. It’s the reason Fantasia can’t catch a break and why Gabby Douglas’ hair became such a hot topic of discussion.
We want our Blackness to be streamlined, pristine and regal. And if it comes out looking anything like Sweet Brown, then we want to distance ourselves from it because that’s not our kind of people. But there’s no monolithic representation of who we are, no one way to be Black. It looks all kinds of ways: Jack and Jill-esque debutantes and working class teen moms, self-made business women and sisters just happy to have jobs at all.
Being a Black woman is an experience as broad as the corners of the world, knitted together by commonalities we share because of our heritage as a global people. We can’t afford to be turning up our noses at each other. Because, in the greater scheme of things, the same way some of us are scoffing at Rachel is the same way White folks are still scoffing at us, degrees and all. Truth be told, Paula Deen just got caught saying what plenty of them are still thinking. She ain’t say nothin’ new.
“Self-hatred” is probably one of the most played out terms we used, trumped only by “swag” and the N-word. If you haven’t shed the perm and gone natural yet, you’re a self-hater. If you prefer Hall & Oates to the Isley Brothers, you’re a self-hater. It’s the educated segment’s absolute most favoritest phrase to slap across fellow Black folks’ backs, but it’s so haphazardly applied it bears little meaning anymore. It’s a matter of opinion.
But this boorish elitism, this disdainful snobbishness, even coming from women who are just a paycheck and a half from being working class them damn selves (despite what their Jag and their cookie cutter house in the nice part of town might say)? That’s self-hatred. And it’s exhausting.
Rachel Jeantel is a sister. She’s family. We all are. And true to form, we may not always like what family does or says or wears but we do ourselves a disservice by dogging each other out. There are social ills that affect the whole of our community that seem almost too overwhelmingly big to ever really change. This is not one of them. It starts with an internal shift in attitude to help create an internal shift in attitude for someone else. I’m Janelle, but I’m also Rachel. And so are you.
Janelle Harris is a writer, blogger and editor, and the owner of The Write or Die Chick , a boutique editorial services agency. She’s also a single mother, a proud Washington, DC girl and a longsuffering Kanye West fan. Chat her up on Facebook or Twitter.