Two women separated by geography and generations. Two women separated by experience and expectations.
A teen and an adult. One summoned to testify in a Florida courtroom, the other to listen. And even though the two were physically close over two days, they remained worlds apart.
It is this disconnect between juror and witness, one layered with issues of race and class, that underscores the varying reactions to last week’s acquittal of George Zimmerman by a Florida jury in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The case has made young people reflect on how they are seen and heard — or misinterpreted — and it is a divide that teens in Boston say they know all too well.
“With adults, when you try to question something they did or an error in them, they argue that they don’t understand anything you’re saying,” 18-year-old Maegen Joachim said at the Fields Corner office of Teens Lead at Work. “It’s like you’re from another planet trying to communicate with their kind.”
Teens such as Joachim know the frustration of talking but not being heard. They know the frustration of existing but not being seen. They know what it means to be deemed less than others, to be judged. To be physics students profiled as thugs. To be an employee profiled as a thief. To be a multilingual college freshman profiled as illiterate.
Christ-Roberte Julmice, who lives in Dorchester, relates in a very tangible way to the condemnation unleashed on Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, the reluctant witness from Miami whose intelligence seemed to be on trial during her testimony in the case against Zimmerman. Julmice and Jeantel are both 19, and like Jeantel, Julmice’s family emigrated from Haiti.
During her time on the stand, the Miami native’s teenage disposition was on full display, complete with inner-city slang. Attorneys repeatedly asked Jeantel to repeat herself, questioning at one point if she understood English and telling her, “I know you grew up in a Haitian family, so make sure that everybody can hear you.”
And during a post-trial interview, a woman identified only as Juror B37 said she had trouble understanding “a lot of” what was said by Jeantel, who will be a high school senior in the fall. The juror, one of the six who found Zimmerman not guilty, said she did not think Jeantel’s testimony was “very credible.”
“I felt very sorry for her,” the juror told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I think she felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills.”
It is that notion of perceived inadequacy by others that Julmice related to most. “Because of my accent, people sometimes don’t understand me. People are looking at me like, ‘What are you saying? What are you telling me?’ ” the entering freshman at Stonehill College said. “You feel like you’re not smart enough to talk to that person.”
When it comes to the conversations of teens being parsed, picked apart, and not understood, some of that might be adults and teens doing the dance of miscommunication as they have for eons.
But Julmice’s peers in the summer works program at the ABCD Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center also see something else at work.
“A lot of it,” said 17-year-old Dayshara Robinson, “has to do with institutionalized and internalized racism.”
“Just oppression. Not racism,” corrected Phillip Nguyen, an 18-year-old worker with the Food Project, an organization that teaches young people about agriculture. “ ‘Cause there’s a difference between refusing to listen and not” hearing.
His physics teacher ignoring students’ pleas in class to slow down is an example of refusing to listen. The hardware store guard following him is an example of profiling .
“So, what I would do was pick things up off the shelves and put them on the ground and walk away,” Nguyen said. “I would give him a look to make sure we made eye contact, go to another aisle, put something on the ground and walk away because if you’re going to racially profile me and assume that because I’m young and the way I dress I’m going to steal something, I might as well have fun with it.”
On Friday, President Obama shared similar experiences in some of his most extensive, and personal, comments on race relations in the United States since entering the White House, saying it was important to provide context for how people feel about, and responded to, the verdict.
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store. That includes me,” the president said. “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.”
Teens in Boston say brown and black boys alike share these experiences.
“Like on the MBTA, the fancy people come on with their suits or whatever down at South Station, and me and best friend over here are being like mad loud, and they are like, ‘These kids are ghetto,’ ” said 16-year-old Justin Caballero, a peer leader with Teens Lead at Work, an initiative in which teens train their peers about health, safety, and their rights under labor laws. “We walk down Dorchester Ave. to come to work and little Asian ladies clutch their purses when we walk by.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.