I have watched the Trayvon Martin saga over the past 17 months, mostly through the lens of a mother, daughter, sister, and aunt. I have personally considered the connection that so many of us, but especially families of color, have to this case. Even if we have not been personally affected by gun violence or racial profiling, most of us understand how hard it is to prepare children for the evils that confront them in the world. During this case, many of us have discussed race, environment, gun violence, and so many other issues facing our country. Yet, inside of the courtroom, the judge mandated that race not come up explicitly during trial. This directive caused both sides to find other ways to describe the fate of this teenager. The prosecution had to use terms like “profiled” instead of “racially profiled.” The defense chose to use certain pictures, terms, and witnesses to allude to racial stereotypes and identity. And, all of the lawyers had to assert that race was not the issue, knowing good and well that it was underlying all that surrounded this case. Many analysts suggested that race was the “elephant in the room.” Well the more I think about this case, in addition to the heated racial and cultural issues that continue to exist, but we often fail to adequately address in this country, I also feel that there was another big elephant in the room during this trial – YOUTH and our constant struggle to really connect with and positively influence young people of all races.
I watched lawyers talk to a 19-year-old (Rachel Jeantel) as if she were an alien. I saw media analysts completely dumbfounded as they tried to understand this young lady’s experience as a black teen in South Florida who spoke 3 languages and had a Haitian background. Not only was everyone trying to process her cultural experiences, they also could not understand why she just didn’t “act right” and wasn’t as poised as the other older witnesses in the courtroom. Why did she have such a bad attitude? Why didn’t the lawyers prepare her better? It was just astonishing to see law experts fall flat on their faces when it came to youth and brain development and how it connects to judgment. Many people just could not understand why a “19 year-old adult,” as they called her, could not be a perfect witness. They were adamant that the jury would never be able to accept her testimony because of her looks, mannerisms, and speaking voice. It is possible that the analysts were right and the jurors could not connect with her at all (one juror did admit that she could not understand some of her “words” and felt sorry for her).
I watched as lawyers tried to comprehend slang within the context of a serious adult trial. I saw the defense ensure that jurors were left with the image of Trayvon as a large black young MAN (not a minor) who wore gold teeth and, God-forbid, a hooded sweatshirt! They were determined (as is expected in a true, tough defense case) not to acknowledge any complex images of a teen who ALSO had days when he hugged his parents, babysat a cousin, rode a horse, or played football.
As I start viewing this tragedy via my professional lens, I am concerned that if we do not fully and effectively advocate for, teach, mentor, and protect our young people, especially our boys, then we are setting them up to be profiled as punk teenagers who are up to no-good even when they are not doing anything illegal.
Let me be clear, connecting with teens does not mean that we condone everything they do and/or say. It means that we take advantage of teachable moments, that we are honest and patient, and that we provide positive direction and support.
Calling our teens punks, sluts, dumb, stupid, and uneducated only causes many of them to retreat and seek solace in the wrong activities and with the wrong people. If you see a child struggling, LOOK for their potential because we all are subject to bias, ignorance, and stereotyping. Sometimes, even as health professionals, teachers, counselors, faith leaders, and parents, etc., we are tempted to engage in the “bigotry of low expectations” and decide in our heads the fate of a child before we even really get to know them. Oh, and young people know when we are ridiculing them, being condescending, or judging them unfairly – Rachel may not have articulated it exactly the way we would, BUT she made it clear that she was well aware of her surroundings!
DID YOU KNOW that Rachel has a speech impediment caused by an extreme under bite and needs surgery? It is obvious that she has braces but I didn’t realize how serious her condition was until her interview on CNN. Many of us, even the ones trying to defend her, attributed her communication style to her culture, neighborhood, and education level ONLY – I am sure most of us did not even think about any other factors outside of her control. Now, we could not have known the details of her experience but we always have the option of not trying to assume everything and to be willing to LEARN about our youth before we start guessing about their plight – even when we mean well.
CASE IN POINT: Just this morning (July 16), national radio show host Tom Joyner actually called Rachel and offered her tutoring, mentorship, and a scholarship for college. Tom showed her compassion and asked her about her goals and dreams. He and her lawyer challenged her to accept the opportunity per her parent’s input and to work hard. NOW that’s how we at least try to ensure that young people become the poised, educated, and productive citizens we expect. She didn’t have to be perfect to get his empathy and sincere interest and Trayvon didn’t need to be perfect to get ours.
ALL of our young people deserve a good quality of life and to be free from any adult’s misguided, preconceived notions about them.
by Kimberley Wicker, Outreach Specialist, SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy