Paula Deen and Rachel Jeantel Woke America Up to Something Black People Have Known All Along

In a news cycle fraught with race-based drama, I cannot help but wonder: what do Paula Deen and Rachel Jeantel have in common? If we pinpoint white privilege, quite a lot.

In the last two weeks alone, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, Paula Deen began a “tour of contrition” for her racist remarks, and in the trial of George Zimmerman, defense witness Rachel Jeantel became the subject of mockery for her linguistic style and demeanor. Clearly, the myth of a post-racial America has been further unravelled by this current news cycle. But if we observe them together, as representative of this moment in time, we see something more latent: White privilege not only persists, but is deeply ingrained in the way we see the world and each other.

The United States has a long and complicated racial history, one that still informs and influences our current social, cultural, and political structures and dynamics. Whiteness is still the accepted norm; we cling to whiteness as the standard-bearer of propriety and the delineation of what is socially acceptable. Those who are white, myself included, maintain a particular kind of privilege in a society that perpetuates and clings to racism, and that privilege is exacerbated by the inability or outright refusal of many white people to see beyond their own privileged perspective and truly listen to and encourage the voices of people of color. More often than not, people who are white don’t see the world from a non-white perspective because they are never forced to; in America, “white” is still constructed as right.

And that takes us to Rachel Jeantel and Paula Deen.

After testifying in George Zimmerman’s murder trial, 19 year-old Rachel Jeantel became a subject of national ridicule and scrutiny. Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin immediately preceding his death, testified to hearing some of the exchange between Martin and Zimmerman before the line went dead. According to her testimony, Martin told her he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker,” a now infamous line in the American media landscape. 

Almost immediately, Jeantel was either latently or outright ridiculed for her linguistic style and demeanor. Criticized for not being clear, for not being particularly intelligent, and for using "ghetto speech," Jeantel became an emblem of the ways in which white privilege denies any and all cultural expressions that don’t serve or reflect the dominant, hegemonic, white norm. Because of her unique linguistic style and vernacular, Jeantel saw her intelligence and humanity essentially erased by Zimmerman’s defense team, the media, and the public at large. If you aren’t using the white, hegemonic language or aren’t perpetuating the white, hegemonic cultural framework, you are often dismissed as “ghetto,” “hostile,” or “stupid,” as Jeantel so viciously was.

What an unbelievably cruel and condescending reflection of the way white privilege works. Because Jeantel doesn’t speak the so-called “white vernacular,” she is immediately subject to intellectual debasements and vicious jokes that characterize her as an irrational, angry, black woman. Nevermind that this young woman is recounting the night her dear friend was shot and killed. What’s more, Jeantel’s linguistic style reflects her own cultural and geographic influences, and it is only subject to ridicule and dismissal because it flies in the proverbial face of whiteness. As writer and culture critic Trudy Hamilton said, “Black women deserve better than this.”

On the other side of the privileged spectrum, we have Paula Deen, the recently-fired Food Network star and famous restaurateur, who has seen the first serious bump in her road to a culinary dynasty. According to a deposition regarding a lawsuit in which she is currently embroiled, Deen used the “n-word” and made statement that seemingly waxed poetic about the days of slavery while she fantasized about a southern plantation wedding:

“I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America … after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War … It was not only black men, it was black women … I would say they were slaves.”

American society has reached a point in which a white person saying the “n-word” is unacceptable, and yes, Deen was roundly criticized for using it. But it is her desire for a black waitstaff reminiscent of slavery that reveals how blinding white privilege can be, and this has been largely ignored in the media firestorm surrounding Deen. How utterly myopic and emphatically privileged to be able to view a slavery-era wedding as "impressive." There is nothing "impressive" about the mass bondage of an entire people.

Perhaps Deen didn’t intend to be racist, but unintentional racism is still racism. And that’s just it: if you are white, and especially if you are economically privileged and white, you often don’t think about how certain thoughts, statements, or policies are racist because you don’t have to. You occupy a distinctly privileged point of view, one that, as we see in the smearing of Rachel Jeantel, is continually reinforced as valid and right. Paula Deen may have lost some endorsements and her Food Network contract, but she also has scores of (largely white) defenders who refuse to acknowledge the glaring racism in her comments and her inherent white privilege in failing to even understand or acknowledge her own racism.

To see beyond white privilege requires a direct challenge to the favor you may receive as a white person and an immediate ceasefire in the policing of people of color’s speech and demeanor. It requires effort, and it requires empathy. 

The Supreme Court voted to reify white supremacy and undermine the enfranchisement of people of color last week, and what a horrific story that was. But to see the more latent, pernicious ways in which white privilege reifies whiteness as the norm and continuously stigmatizes people of color for not adhering or being able to adhere to that norm, we need look no further than the smearing of Rachel Jeantel and Paula Deen's desperate clinging to her own white privilege.

So while Rachel Jeantel was not the one on trial for murder, she was, like every other person of color in America, on trial for daring to defy whiteness. And that is what white privilege is all about.