jail

Playing By the Rules: White Privilege and Rachel Jeantel

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Clue: Post-Racial Edition. It was the black kid in the hoodie, with his cell phone, and “hostile” girlfriend.

During a week when I want to be happy about the death of DOMA, I can’t help but return to my regularly scheduled disillusionment. It shouldn’t be news that Paula Deen is a self-pitying racist in desperate need of waterproof mascara—or at least it shouldn’t be bigger news than the Voting Rights Act ruling that rolled back racial progress about fifty years. And then there’s the George Zimmerman trial with all of its smug punditry, including the focus on witness Rachel Jeantel’s credibility (snicker, snicker), all cloaked in careful, racially neutral language about her education, her behavior, and whether or not she can read cursive.

Part of why this coverage so disillusions me has to do with the writing I am doing, about the drunk-driving arrest in 2005 and subsequent sixty-day-stint in a Houston jail that radically changed my life. I am trying to portray the people I met on that journey—namely poor people of color—honestly, fondly, and with their full humanity. As a young, white, middle-class woman, it was there in the criminal justice system that I received what I now call my “other education,” perhaps even my real education.

For two years, my felony charges worked their way through the Kafka-esque machinations of the system, and during that time, I could do little but steep in a particularly noxious homebrew. Shame, sadness, and fear of the hyperventilating variety collided with the white, middle-class entitlements that I had the arrogance to believe I’d shed. By way of some magical alchemy of interracial dating, a lifelong love of black music, and a good liberal education with a reading list calibrated toward writers of color, I believed that I didn’t have any unacknowledged whiteness or racial or class entitlements. I had been anointed, absolved, made clean—maybe even made nonwhite or racially neutral. In a word, I had been made into an asshole.

I can laugh now at some of this myopia, this near-clinical hubris, but as I go forward in life, I cling to two truths: one, I will constantly be stepping in it—my own white middle-class shit—and two, the dominant cultural view is one of universalized whiteness—that is, the view is so white as to be blinded by its own lens, unable to see even itself. In a workshop taught by the brilliant writers and teachers Alexs Pate and David Mura at my MFA residency this past January, Mura said, “Unconsciousness itself is a privilege.” This unconsciousness has been on parade all week, but nowhere did it seem more glaring to me than in the cultural examination of Ms. Jeantel, whom we all hovered around as if she were an exotic insect pinned in a display case.

I learned a lot from the criminal justice system, but I learned more from my own reactions to it. One of my early and persistent reactions was that I didn’t belong there, not really. This reaction was so automatic it was like a reflex that kept kicking me in the face. Sure, sure, I belonged there: I had committed a crime, a serious one in which I had caused a car crash and the victim broke her leg as a result. I was a bad drunk; it was only a matter of time before I ended up in court. But felony court for two years? Jail for two months? Now wait a damn minute. This protestation was what my white, middle-class entitlement said to me. Nothing in my upbringing, my environment, or my education prepared me for being in the system (except maybe as a do-gooder attorney or social worker). That’s, on the one hand, what I mean by not belonging there. It wasn’t even on the radar. Being charged with a felony, going to jail—these outcomes were as alien to this white, middle-class kid as, say, not going to college or disliking Starbucks. Jail? It seemed preposterous. No one my friends or family knew had been there, not really.

On the other hand, what I mean when I say that I didn’t belong there was the belief—good, bad, indifferent—that the system was a place for poor people and people of color. I knew this before I even knew this. I knew this truth in my body before I knew it with my eyes and experience, and before I knew it by the numbers. People of color, especially poor people of color, are disproportionately incarcerated in this country. According to the Sentencing Project, “[m]ore than 60 percent of those in prison are now racial or ethnic minorities.” In the all-out sprint to incarcerate in the last thirty or so years, people of color, especially poor black men, have borne the brunt of get-tough drug policy, policing, and sentencing—not because they’re committing more drug crimes but because they are poor, black, and/or brown.Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 11.39.37 AM

All of this comes up for me, like so much bile rising in my throat, as I follow the Trayvon Martin case, in particular the treatment and negative stereotyping of Jeantel, who is being cast as just another fat, uneducated, head-wagging black girl who can’t behave properly. The evisceration of her credibility on social media and in the mainstream news media is a shame on us, not on Jeantel, and it reveals the two primary fates allowed for certain women of color—humiliation or lovably sassy Internet meme. Failure to see her humanity and to understand her attitude constitutes a blindness that is a manifestation of whiteness and privilege itself.

As I attempt to portray myself and the women of color I met in jail with honesty, respect, and gratitude, I misstep, back into my own shit. In one example, my bunkie Yolanda, a young black woman from southeast Houston, caused a stir when she refused to make her bed in time for head-count one morning. She was tired, grumpy, and slow-moving on that particular day, but the refrain that ran through my head as she got hauled out of the pod in handcuffs was that she brought it on herself. She couldn’t play by the rules. She wouldn’t behave. But according to whom? Couldn’t play by whose rules and norms? Mine? Society’s? Who was society, anyway? Whoever it was, I knew it wasn’t Yolanda. What I couldn’t see was that she had her own reasons for acting the way she did, and the consequences for it were a fair trade-off for a small break from the self-immolation and soul-crushing despair that came from constant capitulation to the hierarchy.

This newer perspective was gifted to me by my mentor David Mura, by way of Aristotle’s central idea of the good—in short, why people do what they do. (I would go into it here, but “the good” requires its own discussion, and besides, you can look it up.) That someone else’s goal, their good, or their very rationality, might be diametrically opposed to mine simply did not occur to me. (See: white privilege.) Whites universalize their idea of the good, Mura kept insisting, and I began to see how I did this, how I believed what worked for me must work for all others.

As I watch Jeantel’s character on trial, I can’t help but think of all of this—how mainstream culture is universalizing its good and imposing it on Jeantel, how the way I saw myself and people of color wasn’t really seeing, and how I am trying to see better. “What is important now is to recover our senses,” Susan Sontag said in her essay “Against Interpretation.” “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” While Sontag was talking primarily about art, I think it applies here, too, with one addendum. We need to not only recover our senses, but also to recover our sense. That is, if we ever had any in the first place.

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First image by M. T. Hawley.

Second image screencapped from here.


Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in 14 Hills SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity Magazine’s blog. One of the Brevity posts was “Freshly Pressed” by WordPress in 2012, and she was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest. Paige received an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University, and is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. She teaches and writes in Vermont, where she is at work on a memoir about the 60-day stint in a Texas jail that taught her how to grow up. More from this author →