Rachel Jeantel blames herself for letting Trayvon Martin’s murderer go free. But considering how often black women are blamed for many of society’s ills, of course she does.
One of the worst things about being a black woman is that too often other people get to tell our stories. And they tell it in such a way that even we start to believe it.
Yesterday I was barely able to make it through a CNN news story about Rachel Jeantel, the close friend of the boy George Zimmerman killed as he walked home in early 2012. The white male reporter opened the piece by describing Jeantel as “combative” and “dealing with lingering regret” for her testimony at George Zimmerman’s trial.
“Were you blaming yourself when George Zimmerman went free?” he asked her.
“A little bit,” she said in a small voice.
“Do you think you should have said something different?”
Could Rachel Jeantel have said something different? Something that would convince a predominantly white jury that believed a black boy inherently poses a murderous threat just by existing to think otherwise?
That’s what we all expected Rachel to do?
I’m glad I watched the piece to the end because I ultimately learned that despite a learning disability, the trauma of losing her friend, becoming a target of mockery and insult, and being forced to face her friend’s murderer on the national stage all while being demeaned and belittled by his attorneys, Rachel is still surviving. She still smiles and looks people straight on. She still tells the truth with a cutting, knowing edge that makes her seem older than her years. And last month, she graduated from high school, fulfilling a promise she made to Trayvon. She even plans to attend college.
But she still blames herself.
That’s the America I live in. The one in which you can be a teenager who still reads at a fourth grade level but reached 12th grade anyway. The America in which someone who looks like Rachel Jeantel never gets to be angry, sad, or defiant, even when she’s staring her friend’s murderer in the face. I live in the America that asks a dead child’s friend what she could’ve done better and not the killer himself. The one in which six women can let that killer go free and you still blame yourself.
What I have to say is very simple.
Black women, stop blaming yourselves.
I know it seems natural, because there are a lot of folks blaming us for so many things. Pastors blame us when our husbands are unfaithful. A presidential commission famously blamed us for the disproportionate and unequal criminalization of our youth. Well-known members of Congress blame us for poverty. President Obama even manages to blame us when our own children are killed.
So it seems natural for us to just blame ourselves. Like breathing, like the way we women learn to say “sorry” all the time, or try to avoid being called “fast” for having a crush, or learn not to talk “too loud” or be “too opinionated,” we beat everyone else to the punch line and accept all the blame for things that existed long before we did. We criticize our hair, our clothes, the way we speak, think, eat, cook, and love because we’ve been so well-trained to do just that. And we do it to each other, to our kids, and to ourselves.
Hell, even I find myself compulsively shopping for travel bags because I secretly believe that the right bag will keep me from being stopped so much at the airport.
And so this struggle shit is real. In an everyday, grind your teeth, be your own damn TED talk real kind of way, we have to slice, hack, cut, and shred the blame in the best way we know how. Because it can kill us.
The weight of all the suffering caused by the evil in the world—the poverty fueled by greed, killings fueled by hate, schools closed by apathy and heartlessness, air and water poisoned by shortsightedness, the killers of children walking free—is too much for us to bear. And it’s not ours.
It’s most definitely not Rachel’s.
So, laugh today. Write yourself a poem, sing your own story, paint your own portrait. Meditate on Audre Lorde’s ever-graceful reminder that caring for ourselves is an act of self-preservation and political warfare.
But blame? Always leave that for tomorrow and for somebody else. Because us? We went through far too much yesterday and have too damn much to do today.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.