Thursday, June 27, 2013

The social media stoning of Rachel Jeantel

When Rachel Jeantel testified in her friend Trayvon Martin’s murder trial yesterday she was called fat, ignorant, sassy, ugly and manly.

Jeantel was called everything except what she is, a witness in one of the most significant criminal trials in recent history – a young woman who heard her friend fight for his life.

Social media users called Jeantel a thug, an embarrassment to humanity and to black America. Some joked that she is worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit, a living stereotype, an example of America’s failing education system. Here's a Storify of some of the tweets. 

Those tweets reveal some of the things that some Americans believe is wrong with this country, but more deeply, what’s wrong with young black women. Attacks on Jeantel’s hair, body, speech, grammar and attitude all seemed to be proof for social media users that young black women are fools.

Social media empowers users to mobilize quickly and spread information about a common cause to raise awareness and provoke change. But it also allows users to express ugly thoughts at lightening speed and with anonymity. Social media enables users to throw digital rocks and hide their hands. After Jeantel’s testimony Twitter users’ insults grew into a social media stoning.

One of the most common criticisms about Jeantel was that she looked like Precious, the overweight, undereducated character with a deep brown complexion portrayed by actress Gabourey Sidibe. That criticism was particularly troubling because social media users assaulted her appearance because she lives in a body that this society finds repugnant - one that is large, black and female. Jeantel’s is a body that holds no value in this society so she is perceived as a person who is not valuable or credible. So for some people anything that came out of her mouth, even in the most perfect English grammar and diction, would be meaningless.

Black folks had their share of criticism for Jeantel too. The black respectability police on Twitter pondered if her father is in her life. They said if George Zimmerman is acquitted it would be her fault because of her sassy attitude. Black folks said girls like Jeantel are the type to keep away from their children.  

Social media users mocked the fact that Jeantel testified that she doesn’t watch the news. How many people in their late teens and early 20s do watch the news, especially young people of color? Part of the reason why they don’t watch the news is because they only see reflections of themselves that are stigmatized, mocked and ridiculed much like the discourse about Jeantel on social media and mainstream media after the first day of her testimony.

The ugly comments that circulated through social media about Jeantel’s speech, looks, mannerisms, race and education reveal the deep-rooted classism, racism, sexism and lookism in America and our inability to focus on what was important yesterday – justice. Yesterday young black womanhood seemed to be on trial instead of Zimmerman.

Last year Trayvon Martin’s murder was thrust into the spotlight by social media and black media. Mainstream media ignored the story until they were forced to start paying attention to online activism on social networks. Social media activism helped push law enforcement to investigate Trayvon’s murder and not just brush it off as another nameless, faceless dead black boy. Now social media is dissecting and devouring the last person who spoke with him.

Rachel Jeantel will return to the witness stand today. More sarcastic gifs, memes and comments about her will surely be created.  But I hope social media users will invest more time into listening to her testimony and think before they post another mean photo or comment about a girl who is testifying in her friend’s murder trial.