Saturday, June 29, 2013

We hate Paula Deen so that we can hate Rachel Jeantel

Sitting in the house where my grandmother was dying, I half-watched some midday TV news program the hospice nurse had turned on, laptop in front of me, my twitter list expanding too slowly to abate the boredom and despair, everything insufficient to abate the boredom and despair. The lead, their main story, was Paula Deen's continuing collapse into racist infamy. She's remained a story, despite the fact that nothing changes: she made a televised apology? She gets fired from different jobs? Always a new headline to keep her at the top of the hour, and indeed, the whole week of hospice she was all over afternoon TV- from The View to CNN.

But this particular program, one I had never seen before, one which for me was as totally anonymous as I was to it, not being in its target demographic of old women and housewives (the midday ads remain cleaning products and arthiritis medicine, just like I remember from watching Judge Joe Brown at 1PM after faking sick from school, it is ever so, cleaning products and arthiritis medicine, because after a life time cleaning grout your joints wear down, begin to fail you, a smooth transfer which you don't even see as it happens, the ads a comfort, saying: "Someday you'll be just another old lady, but don't worry, you can watch the same shows, at the same time, with the same ads"), cut from a teary eyed apologizing white Paula Deen, back to the lily white newscasters, then to an image of Rachel Jeantel.

And it was so obvious, the footage of Jeantel, it was so clear where it was going. The whole process is so immediate, so deeply ingrained, that you don't even need to hear the newscasters, just to look at her.

Her? A star witness? But look at her giant hoop earrings, look at the gold necklace and the frilly bright orange blouse and the hair do cut straight over her eyes, look at the shy way she looks down as she's questioned, nervously, look at her fatness and her black skin.

Rachel dressed up for court, she knew that she had to look nice and formal, and she did, she's put together and she's well dressed, but it doesn't matter, because she's not dressed up "correctly", she's of the wrong class, the wrong race to even be able to dress up. In her dressing up, in her inability to dress up for court, she reveals herself as "not-of-the-right-sort" in a way that her informal day to day wear never could.

And what about her words, her attitude, how does the media describe them? Defensive? Angry? Combative? Evasive? Where have I heard these epithets before?

The most sustained exposure I ever had to the court system was in an eviction proceeding against a squat I was living in. The way the proceedings were being brought meant we went to court almost once a week. And I lived with a woman, an artist, who was very smart, very self-confident, a woman of color who, as soon as she got into the courts, as soon as she was addressed by judges or lawyers, started stuttering and stammering, avowing that she didn't understand things because she was "too stupid", "just an artist" etc.

The courts have their own language, their own atmosphere of authority and power, their own special discourse which, if you lack that form of authority yourself, an authority only gained through privilege and education of a certain sort, mostly the privilege and education of being a rich white man--although in post-racial America just speaking and dressing like a rich person will get you through if you bust your ass--if you don't have these privileges then court will always fail you. Access to the courts is reliant on thick legalese, on the belief that procedural nonsense is more than just magic tricks, the deployment of "calm" "rational" "dispassionate" language. Any show of emotion, any fear, any disquiet, any anger, altogether appropriate responses to the inhumanity and cruelty of a court which wants to put you in a cage, which wants to take away your home, which wants to find out that the man who killed your friend in cold blood acted righteously, these reveal that you are not a member of the court, that you can never be its subject, that you do not deserve its respect or the respect of the jury.

A poor black woman can never be a star witness, because a poor black woman testifying in court is always already undermined, the way she dresses the way she speaks, it always already lacks the truth, because truth is power but more fundamentally power makes truth, and look at how nervous she is, look how powerless she is, what she says cant be true, look at how the rich white lawyers can humiliate her, look at how the media gawks at her, she can't know anything really, she can't.

And so the spectacle of Paula Deen, of this unreconstructed racist scum, the way everyone agrees she's scum, shows us how racially just we are. And immediately following looking at Deen we look at Rachel Jeantel, and the newscasters tell us: "look at how stupid she is, look at how poor and powerless she is, clearly Trayvon Martin was the same". But we don't have to worry, we're not racist, we hate Paula Deen, we hate her, we fire her, we love how much we hate Paula Deen, and that makes it safe for us to hate Rachel Jeantel, because we're not racist, we're just interested in the Truth.

We don't have to worry about our society if George Zimmerman is acquitted, because we found Paula Deen guilty.

1 comment:

  1. Very well articulated. Fascinating that America expects so much of a percipient witness when it should recognize that only 10-15% of the population consists of talking heads, media reporters, movie stars, entertainers, and actors. The vast majority of people are just ordinary people, unaccustomed to the glare of spotlights, and the noise of sound bites.

    Nice. You're welcome to visit my forum any time. We could use someone with your depth of analysis.