Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon. We went to a grocery store yesterday and I have never, ever been that anxious before in my entire life – and I used to be pretty constantly anxious.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: This is a whole new level for me. One of my friends told me to get off the internet because things weren’t that bad. There’s only 12 cases in Arizona. Ehh…
Megan Figueroa: Oh, there’s more. We just don’t know.
Carrie Gillon: We don’t know. According to ABC News, it might be up to 70,000 people.
Megan Figueroa: Already?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Most of those cases won’t be symptomatic at all. That’s the problem. Most people who get it – or maybe not “most” – but a significant percentage of people who get it don’t ever show any symptoms.
Megan Figueroa: Right. That’s why I was so anxious. I went, two days ago, to the grocery store. It seemed pretty normal in the store except the shelves.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. The water was all gone.
Megan Figueroa: And tuna and stuff – very apocalyptic supplies were gone. When, really, I just wanted a gallon of milk. Now I’m like, “Oh, we’re running low on butter. But these are different times.” [Laughter] I just – I dunno. Do I go and get butter, or do we just survive without it? I dunno. The anxiety for me is like, “What am I passing on? What am I breathing into the air?”
Carrie Gillon: Well, okay. Yes. You could be a vector, but you could not yet be one and someone else could be. I mean, it’s all –
Megan Figueroa: I know.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Butter. Definitely probably should’ve gotten some extra butter. I have some in the freezer so I’m kind of okay.
Megan Figueroa: I wasn’t ready to pandemic shop. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Here’s the problem. We should’ve been pandemic shopping maybe –
Megan Figueroa: Three months ago.
Carrie Gillon: – three weeks ago.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, three weeks. Okay.
Carrie Gillon: Because people should’ve not been hanging out together as much as we were. Finally, people are starting to realize that, hm, maybe things are really bad.
Megan Figueroa: Well, I hope people listening are staying as healthy as can be. I don’t know. Maybe this is the first time you’re listening to us because you’re like, “I have some free time on my hands.”
Carrie Gillon: If so, it’s not usually quite much of a bummer.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I’m usually way funnier and not about to cry at all times. [Laughter] I find it very lovely to see people on Twitter suggesting that people listen to our podcast or assign it in their classes since school is all up in the air right now. Universities are up in the air.
Carrie Gillon: I don’t even know why they’re bothering. They should just cancel the term.
Megan Figueroa: Well, I was gonna say this is a little bit more light-hearted but, I mean, I guess it is because Corona virus is pretty –
Carrie Gillon: Dire. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: I filled out my census. It took two-and-half-minutes which – it was so quick. I specifically remember 20 –
Carrie Gillon: 10?
Megan Figueroa: Not 2010 because I don’t think – I think it was 2000 when I was, like, 13 or whatever being really excited when my parents got theirs and helping them fill it out. It was so much longer. It asked about languages spoken in the home. It asked so many more questions. Now, it really just asked birthday and race.
Carrie Gillon: And ethnicity. That’s it. Yeah. I was so shocked because I don’t remember the 2010 census. I must’ve filled it in, but I don’t remember it at all. But I certainly remember the Canadian one from 2000, I think, around that era. It was huge. Of course, I might’ve been one of the people who had the extra-long census. I can’t remember. Some tiny percentage of Canadians also get an extra-long one where they ask you a lot more information.
Megan Figueroa: Like income and all that?
Carrie Gillon: I think income might’ve been on the regular one.
Megan Figueroa: We had income, too. I was surprised.
Carrie Gillon: There was almost nothing. They asked almost no questions and I was horrified. I wanted at least languages to be on there for kinda selfish reasons but also, I think it’s important.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say I use the census data from 2010 a lot to say how many Spanish-speaking families are in X area or whatever. That’s really important information for lots of reasons. I was very sad to see it not on there. I can only imagine all of the information that we’re losing without income level too like what kind of resources that we can provide for different pockets of places in the US. I was like, “Okay, great! They’re like, ‘Everyone fill it out. It’s easy. Please don’t be afraid of your government. If citizenship status is something you don’t wanna share, that’s not gonna be a part of it.’” But I’m like, “Oh, but then there’s nothing here.” What are they getting out of this now?
Carrie Gillon: Just numbers. Which is – okay. We do need to know how many people there are in each region for a variety of reasons. You’re still gonna have to provide –
Megan Figueroa: For representatives, right?
Carrie Gillon: For representatives. You’re still gonna have to provide a certain amount of resources regardless of whether you know how many – for sure. You can still kinda guesstimate based on how many people there are in a particular region. It’s not completely useless information. It’s just the bare minimum.
Megan Figueroa: I was very, very shocked. I mean, this is also, I guess, a PSA to say, “Do it,” because it was so easy. Don’t even worry about setting aside an hour of your time. It really is so simple.
Carrie Gillon: The good thing is, it’s really simple. The bad thing is, if you don’t have internet access, what are you supposed to do?
Megan Figueroa: I know.
Carrie Gillon: I was surprised there was no physical version. I mean, I know there is a physical version because they were going around to certain more isolated regions and doing the census that way – so door to door. Now, with the pandemic, that should not be happening.
Megan Figueroa: I’m wondering – I mean, I think libraries, it’s only a matter of time before the libraries are shut down, which is one place a lot of people could’ve done it or where a lot of people do a lot of their internet access stuff.
Carrie Gillon: Again, there’re still some places where there’s not even that resource. They’re that isolated.
Megan Figueroa: Library deserts, basically.
Carrie Gillon: I’m so upset. I really wanna know how many indigenous languages are actually being spoken. I wanna know these things. I mean, there’s not even a way to answer that.
Megan Figueroa: We have an episode coming up that’s about Haitian Creole. I was excited to see what Haitian Creole – my instructions on how to do the census, I was like, “Oh, there’s Russian and Arabic.” I was like, “Haitian Creole? Awesome! Upcoming episode!” Then, I get in there and I’m like, “There’s no questions about language? This has really ruined my mood.” That deterred the little high I had about all of that. There’s a tease for an upcoming episode.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. I’m very excited for that interview.
Megan Figueroa: Me too.
Carrie Gillon: Today, we have Dr. Sharese King who is a Provost’s Post-Doctoral Fellow and Instructor in Linguistics at the University of Chicago. She’s a sociolinguist. Her research focuses on the facets and implications of identity construction for African Americans, in particular how African American speech is packaged, construed, racialized, and evaluated. We particularly wanted to have you on to talk about the George Zimmerman murder trial and particularly Rachel Jeantel and the intersection of language and the law. We have a bunch of preliminary questions to ask first because I think there’s a lot in there that our listeners may not know.
Sharese King: Right.
Megan Figueroa: And Megan. Megan may not know.
Carrie Gillon: And me too, to be fair. [Laughter] So, welcome!
Sharese King: Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you for being here with us.
Sharese King: I appreciate being here. Thanks for inviting me.
Megan Figueroa: Of course! We’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while so this is exciting for us. We really wanted to get into more of how language intersects with the law because it’s so important. It’s life or death kind of important that a lot of people don’t quite understand just because they haven’t had to think about it. We really appreciate you being kind of our first language and law person, right, Carrie?
Carrie Gillon: Right!
Megan Figueroa: You employ ethnographic methods to study the social and linguistic diversity across racialized speakers. What are “ethnographic methods”?
Sharese King: Yes. When I say, “ethnographic methods,” I mean methods that are really attuned to the community dynamic – going into a community thinking about how people see themselves in that community as well as how they participate in it. There may be me doing a typical what we call “sociolinguistic interview,” which is about an hour-long interview where we ask people a range of questions from “What part of the city did you grow up in? Who were your friends growing up? What are your hobbies/activities? How would you describe yourself?” to questions about language, “Do you think you have an accent? How do people from here talk like?” Those kinds of questions.
Then, from there, I also like to just do things around collecting more information on the history of a place, so reading up on how – especially for me because I study African Americans – how African Americans came to live in this space, right? Did they come through the Great Migration? Okay. Which part of the Great Migration? Maybe they came through the Dustbowl Migration, right, which some people don’t know that African Americans traveled to California via that means too. Just asking these historical questions while thinking about this historical lens in relation to the present time. “What are the events that are happening? How are people coming together in the community? Around what shared identities are they making use of?” Those are the kinds of questions that I like to ask.
Carrie Gillon: You also talked about how African American speech is “racialized.” Can you explain what that means?
Sharese King: When I say that African American speech is racialized, what it means to racialize someone is to map them to a racial category. You can listen to a speech signal, and people think that they’re able to map them directly to belonging to a particular category. This can happen for race, but this can also happen for gender. It can also happen for sexuality and a range of other social dimensions.
When I talk about it, I’m curious as to the ways in which people do that differently across different kinds of African American populations or the way they – when we get it wrong. What does that mean? Like, “Oh, this person was actually black, and we thought that their voice was white.” What does that mean? Why? What acoustic cues were you getting in the signal to make you believe that?
Megan Figueroa: So, when you do ethnographic studies, are you able to use the history that you gathered to see how people get to X conclusion?
Sharese King: Yeah. I think so. I mean, there’re ways in which you can start to make out – for example, I did some of my ethnographic work in a city that I’m from for my dissertation, which is Rochester, New York. There were interesting comments about how, “Well, you know, we’ve heard that we sound country here. But, you know, my grandparents migrated here in 1960 to work at this” – you know? You start to see the history, sort of, of the language based on where people are coming from. They start to draw comparisons, of course, to more popular cities like the New York City area and say, for example, “We don’t sound like them. We sound more country in comparison.” That has to do a lot with the ways in which peoples tie their identities, also, to some of these southern roots.
Carrie Gillon: What does “country” mean in this context?
Sharese King: Yeah. Good! That’s a great question. I think it means a lot. I think in some ways it does actually mean related to southern patterning like /ai/ monophthongization. For example, if you say “sky” like /ska:/, in which maybe the two parts of that diphthong gets reduced so that only a single aspect of that particular vowel is pronounced. There are ways in which a southern pattern like that shows up in the speech of African Americans north.
Then, there are ways in which it’s like, “Oh, no. This is just different. We’re using ‘country’ to mean ‘not the same as us,’ but it doesn’t mean ‘southern’ either. It just means a different pattern.”
Megan Figueroa: Even time when I hear a sociolinguist talk about ethnographic studies I’m just like, “Ya’ll are doing such important work.”
Sharese King: Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s work that I hold close to my heart because you’re, in some sense, doing storytelling. You’re relaying back people’s narratives and histories into this coherent story about that place and what it means to speak like you’re from that place.
Megan Figueroa: What are racialized language patterns?
Sharese King: Racialized language patterns are language patterns that are associated with particular racial groups. For example, I think if we were to talk about certain white groups in this county, you would connect certain what we call “vowel shifts” or ways of sounding local to white speakers. The Northern Cities Shift, when they say things like /keət/ or /beət/ for /kæt/ and /bæt/, people would associate that with the white speakers of some of the more northern cities like Rochester.
Then, there are other kinds of patterns that are associated, I think, with black speakers. You especially hear this in some of the morphosyntactic features like if I were to say, “He be walkin’ to the store,” if I were to use habitual be, that would mean that this person is doing an act repeatedly or does it normally, regularly. “He be goin’ to the store” or “He be goin’ to the mall.” People would associate that with being black because this is something that they’ve heard among black speakers. Although, now some are maybe making the argument that a marker like that is becoming more mainstream, as we’ve seen it used across memes and things like that. There are just certain features that are racialized, meaning that they’re associated with a particular racial group.
Megan Figueroa: If you take away – say you’re on the phone or something, and you hear a pattern that’s racialized, you might then assume that you’re talking to a black speaker if you hear habitual be – something like that?
Sharese King: Yes. People make assumptions about you based on what I like to call these “cues” in the sound signal and map you to a lot of different categories and then determine how you should be treated, sometimes, based on what categories they have mapped you to.
Carrie Gillon: What are the social or political consequences of using these racialized language patterns?
Sharese King: The social and political consequences are that people can determine a certain kind of value for you or a certain way to treat you based on what they assume about you from your voice. If I am calling for an apartment – and this is some of John Baugh’s research – if I’m calling for an apartment in a specific neighborhood where there aren’t a lot of black people living there, but I assume from the phone call that you have a black voice and I want to keep this neighborhood less black and more white, then I might assume, “Okay. This person, I will not offer up the opportunity to come and view this apartment because I don’t want to increase the number of black people in this neighborhood.” That’s a kind of consequence or an example of a consequence that can happen.
Other kinds of consequences are that people like to assume your intelligence based on your voice. Maybe I might have some sort of implicit biases about people who use “ya’ll” in their speech. “Okay. Well, this person might be more working class” or “This person might be southern.” That might mean that they’re not as intelligent. People form stereotypes based on the way that a person speaks.
Megan Figueroa: These implicit biases that you’re talking about, they’re really insidious because even people that are trying hard don’t realize they’re doing it. You may make these assumptions about if people are working class and where they grew up or all these too. This is still not good, right? [Laughter]
Sharese King: Yes. I mean, it operates in the same way that profiling in person, right? John Baugh termed this “linguistic profiling” to talk about people being denied of certain rights based on just their voice. It plays out just like racism would in any other context. If you were to see this person in person and not hear their voice and just decide that they should be denied particular opportunities or rights on the basis of how they look, people can decide these things on the basis of how someone talks.
Carrie Gillon: On the basis of voice, which is one of our episodes actually.
Megan Figueroa: Yes.
Carrie Gillon: You co-authored “Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond.” Why in particular did you want to study this case?
Sharese King: So, actually my co-author, John, he began doing the work on it first. I kinda came along and said, “This is super important. If there’s any way I could be a part of it, I would love to.” I think for me the feeling was just, “This is such an important time in the culture.” I feel like everyone can remember where they were or what they were doing when they heard about Trayvon Martin and then when they watched the case unfold on TV. I think both of those moments are so central to the culture, especially in thinking about the formation of Black Lives Matter.
For me, I’m just like, “We have so much of this important knowledge that I think stays in the academy’s halls. We don’t get it out enough to the public.” I just felt like this was just a really opportune time for us to come forward and say, “Actually, we have something meaningful to contribute to the society at large about language, the law, and the socio-political consequences of speaking a certain way.”
Megan Figueroa: Even non-black viewers could see that something really gross was happening, maybe not able to quite put their finger on what it was. Again, this type of work, to get it out of the academy, to get it out of the ivory tower, like you said, is some important because there are people that want to understand why – they’re like, “This is gross, right? I need to know why this is gross.”
Sharese King: I think even until this day people still don’t quite understand. I’m grateful for these venues like this to discuss exactly what was happening.
Carrie Gillon: What was so gross in that courtroom in particular? And outside the courtroom too because the media also played a role.
Sharese King: There are a lot of gross things. I’m like, “I need to make a list for ya’ll.” Where do we start? Well, for one, you have a witness for whom, I believe, the jury did not have experience with the dialect that she spoke. I believe that led to a lot of misunderstandings. We have evidence of this both from the actual post-interview that one of the jurors gave with Anderson Cooper in which she said, “I didn’t understand a lot of the things that she was saying,” and later on in that same interview went to say she wasn’t credible.
You have misunderstandings. Then, you have this link between misunderstanding someone and their sense of credibility. That really needs to be teased apart because not being able to understand someone doesn’t mean that they’re not telling the truth or doesn’t mean that they’re not honest. I think there may be some associations that are unaddressed that can be happening.
Megan Figueroa: It’s like one of those things where just knowing that maybe in the future people will stop – if they’re on a jury – they’ll stop and question themselves. It’s just like pausing for a second to reflect on this. Because the thing where you go from “I can’t understand someone no matter who it is” and then to “Does this mean that they’re un-credible?” that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, right? That’s not what we’re saying here.
Sharese King: Yes. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it makes you an unaware person. That’s hard for people to grapple with is that this doesn’t have to be an indictment on your entire character. This doesn’t have to be that you’re all the way a bad person. In fact, that’s tangential. That’s actually not really what’s important is to determine your character at this point in time, it’s to determine “How do we correct this such as to mediate the misunderstandings and to come to a place where you are given the resources you need in order to make more informed decisions.”
The other parts about this case that were interesting that John and I found out were that they didn’t actually have access to the transcriptions during the deliberation. They can ask for a playback, maybe, but you can’t actually see what was transcribed, so a lot of what you go into these deliberations with, it seems as if, may be your memory.
What gets emphasized in your memory? Maybe you remember the times in which this person said the n-word, or this person said, “creepy-ass cracker,” or you might remember the time in which, “Okay. She said something but I didn’t understand.” What then are you evaluating? You’re evaluating, essentially, the coherence of her performance for you rather than just the facts that are at play.
Megan Figueroa: Just thinking about what is coherent is different for different people.
Sharese King: Right. Definitely. That’s what I mean. “Your perception of her coherence” is really the way to say that.
Carrie Gillon: I’ve read also that in some jurisdictions, jurors aren’t allowed to take notes or anything. It’s all about their memory. And memory, as we know, is extremely fallible. I mean, not that notes would be a perfect solution, but at least it would help.
Sharese King: Exactly. You remember what the prosecutors and the defense attorneys make apparent and keep reinforcing.
Carrie Gillon: Sometimes, they lie at the end. They say that something was said or was factually found, but that actually wasn’t the case during the trial at all. It’s very frustrating.
Sharese King: It’s very frustrating and also just happening all over the place and goes unnoticed in ways that no one will be held accountable for, but people will definitely be punished for.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, this is not an indictment of every lawyer ever, but I am sure that there are some lawyers that are specifically targeting the way that people speak. They know what they’re doing.
Sharese King: Yes. There was a point in, I think, the trial in which they asked, “You speak English, right?” And she says, “Yes,” but that question is so loaded because we have so many varieties of English in this country and beyond. There are ways in which just because you speak the same language it doesn’t necessitate that you know these other subtle patterns that other people are bringing to the table when they’re giving a testimony.
Again, we don’t get to choose who gets to be the witness to the crime. We don’t get to say, “Okay. We want this person who talks this way and looks this way to be the person to testify or to be the person to witness this event or be around for it and go.” We don’t get to set up characters and props in this way. You have to take people where they’re at and you have to account for the potential misunderstandings that will inevitably happen when you’re getting people from different parts of the population. I’m sure the jury that evaluated this testimony were not Rachel Jeantel’s peers.
There’s a way in which, I think – and I’m sure there are great lawyers out there who do this kind of work – but there’s a way in which you have to prepare or foreground these differences in order to really emphasize how they can affect or impact your perception of a person.
Carrie Gillon: What should’ve the prosecutors done in this case, do you think?
Sharese King: That’s a great question. I think for one, yeah, they really needed to have some sort of expert witness involved to come and say, “Yes. Actually, here are some discrepancies in the use of particular kinds of terms.” Like when talking about the n-word, or talking about “creepy-ass cracker,” and talking about the offense of the terms, I think it would’ve been good to have somebody there.
I also think it would’ve been good to, again, prepare Rachel for the potential backlash that would come. I don’t know if they did that, but I felt as if there was a shift from the first day of the testimony to the second day. That, in part, probably had something to do with the backlash or maybe the lawyers coming in afterward and saying, “Hey, actually, people are saying this about you.”
Whereas, it would’ve been nice for her going there just more aware of the ways in which she would be interpreted. Some people have suggested having – this is a broader issue too – having an interpreter. I think that comes with a lot of baggage that we can unpack. I mean, for one, again, assuming that you’re not competent in English is one of the things that you run the risk of doing when you introduce an interpreter. At the same time, it could’ve helped with, perhaps, some of the interruptions that were made. We actually have the transcript from the trial, and it shows certain instances in which jurors where interrupting the trial to say, “I can’t understand.”
Carrie Gillon: What? Wow!
Megan Figueroa: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Sharese King: The judge is like, “You can’t interrupt.” It’s very evident, it’s very clear, that there are misunderstandings. Again, those things just have to be foregrounded. I think, in addition, there were just certain moments – and people have subsequently written about this – in which Bernie de la Rionda helped to further stigmatize the way she spoke in terms of how he interacted with her.
“Pardon my language, sorry, you said this,” right? You’re sort of censoring her language when you’re repeating it back to her to give this kind of viewpoint to the audience that this isn’t appropriate language for this place.
Megan Figueroa: Was this the prosecutor or the –
Sharese King: This is the prosecutor. You’re doing this with your own witness. There’re just certain ways in which not only Rachel needed to be prepared but he needed to be prepared to interact with a speaker for whom, yeah, spoke a different dialect than he did.
Carrie Gillon: So, lawyers should hire linguists is what you’re saying? [Laughter]
Sharese King: Basically.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I agree.
Sharese King: I think so. I think there’s another part of this – and this is something that I’m actively working on right now with a set of courts – and that is some have asked me to come in and give a couple lectures and trainings or workshops on the dialect particularly of African American English and a linguist’s role in the courtroom, potentially what it could be.
What this is gonna do is expose court transcribers to a dialect that they’re not used to hearing such that, when they go to transcribe and they’re like, “Hm. I don’t know if I did this right,” maybe now they’ll have more awareness to say, “Oh, this is an AAVE pattern. They’re saying this.” We want more accurate transcriptions because that’s important not even just in the courtroom but especially when you’re collecting depositions and things like that and those things are transcribed. People can come back and – this is essentially what Don tried to do and use this against Rachel to say, “Well, you said this here,” but it looked as if it probably were a mis-transcription or some sort of error of some part. I think that it’s important for people to just have a greater awareness of other kinds of patterns that exist across the English language.
Megan Figueroa: Were there any African Americans on the jury?
Sharese King: No. I’ve heard – and my memory, I’d have to go back – but I heard there were no African American women. I do believe there was a Latina woman.
Carrie Gillon: Did the defense make sure of that or something? Because I know in some other cases, like the Curtis Flowers case, multiple times the prosecutor made sure that there were no black people on the jury at all.
Sharese King: I am not quite positive about that. I suspect – my hunch is – probably yes because this happens all the time. People can just easily eliminate whomever they want from the jury just based on a feeling rather than having to go through a rigorous process to prove this person doesn’t belong.
Megan Figueroa: In Florida, that is not representative of demographics.
Sharese King: Right. When we think of where Rachel is from – and even of her own language background. It’s so rich. People don’t know that she’s multilingual. She spoke this variety of English, but she also knows Spanish and Haitian Creole. This is something that we’ve seen celebrated in other contexts. When I think about –
Carrie Gillon: Princess Charlotte?
Sharese King: Yes. Princess Charlotte. She’s learning two languages, showing that she’s wise and X, Y, and Z. We celebrate it in those contexts. I just wish that celebration were extended equally across different populations. Most of the world is multilingual, actually. I just wish that we extended that to other kinds of speakers and found it valuable.
Carrie Gillon: I definitely felt like she was being penalized for being a Spanish and Haitian Creole speaker for sure.
Sharese King: I think there were pieces of that that also showed up in the acoustic signal in these different ways. It wasn’t even that she was just speaking AAVE – or African American Vernacular English is what I mean when I say, “AAVE” – but she was also influenced by other varieties in her repertoire.
Carrie Gillon: I also wanna talk about the media’s role in this case because I felt like the media, for the most part, failed miserably. They also seemed to misunderstand who she was and what her variety was and that she was an English speaker. What can we do to, I dunno, convince the media to wake up about the language?
Sharese King: That’s a harder question but a great one. Let me think about what would be – I think just in general my approach is always to move toward celebration of, again, multilingualism and multiple dialects. I think that the critiques that she saw in the media for the way she spoke are not disconnected from a general distain for people who speak different languages all together.
This is a larger issue. We can’t accept people who speak different dialects if we can’t accept people who speak different languages because it ultimately reflects different ways of life and, sometimes, people use that as a fear tactic to divide ourselves or to punish people or say people don’t belong. If we could come to point where we more broadly, again, just accept different ways of being, which will include different ways of speaking, in the society then we can start to address some of the more public backlash that certain speakers face.
We can’t also separate – at least a speaker like Rachel Jeantel, you want her to have access to a particular dialect of English that is not the most readily available where she probably comes from in terms of resources to teach her and her classmates this academic language of power. That’s another thing that I think people need to have awareness of. I think there’s always this move or desire to judge and not have more grace on people’s circumstances and differences and backgrounds.
Carrie Gillon: I was just thinking, she was also relatively young.
Sharese King: Yeah. We’ve seen people speak like this who have been rewarded for it, right? We’ve seen certain guests on Dr. Phil and these other kinds of TV shows. Okay. They speak in this accent from some southern communities or some inner-city communities and they’re automatically rewarded and given special privileges in society, whether that be in the form of record deals or just more public media attention. It’s lauded in a certain kind of way that, when it occurs on particular kinds of black bodies, it’s not.
Megan Figueroa: She was under 18, wasn’t she? Maybe not when she went to trial, but when it all happened.
Sharese King: When it all happened, I believe she was 17 or 18 at the time. I think we forget the trauma. I can’t imagine the trauma of being – this was a person for whom they developed a friendship, where they were talking regularly for hours a day on end, and to get off the phone with someone thinking, “Okay. Something happened but they’ll call me back when something is better,” to hear like, “No. This person is never coming back,” and then to have to talk publicly about the experience of having the last words with your friend on the phone, and then to be humiliated by the public for talking – like, “How dare you talk about it like that.” I just think we are just not sensitive enough to the circumstances.
Megan Figueroa: No, we aren’t.
Carrie Gillon: Especially back then. I think we’re slightly better now at least about trauma. I think at least that might trigger some thought to be more careful now than it was then. But still, there’s still a lot more that we need to do better on, including even that.
Megan Figueroa: Because we have set up this system – the media, lawyers, judges and juries have set it up so that the people that are testifying have to testify in a certain way to be taken seriously instead of it being on us to hear it differently. I think that’s where we need to start shifting it towards we need to pause and reflect and not expect someone to come to us while they’re being re-traumatized to be – wouldn’t it make the most sense that she would speak in the way that she’s most comfortable? If you have to prepare someone to speak a completely different way, that’s dishonest too. It could be very difficult.
Sharese King: Yeah. To learn an entire new dialect in a day? Okay.
Megan Figueroa: That sounds like a terrible product that would be on a – “Dialect in a Day.” It’s gonna be like Rosetta Stone.
Carrie Gillon: It’s probably already in existence. [Laughter]
Sharese King: You know, someone probably in Silicon Valley is making the app for it. [Laughter] This is why I say – when I say “prepare,” they should’ve prepared Rachel. It’s not to say teach her the dialect in a day but just make her aware, “Look. You speak in this kind of way and people may not understand. If you think there are aspects or certain words that people might not understand, elaborate.” Maybe it’s hard to do that in a court setting but – you know.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, yes, but most people have to learn how to elaborate in those circumstances anyway. It feels like they should have done that for her. That just seems like basic knowledge that they should’ve given her, and it doesn’t seem like they did.
Sharese King: It just seems as if the best case wasn’t put forward.
Carrie Gillon: Definitely not. There were some people who thought that that was on purpose. Aye yae yae. I hope that’s not true.
Sharese King: That’s the other thing. It’s sad that we even have to talk about in this kind of way of the best case wasn’t put forward because it should’ve been enough. Especially when you come to these more contentious cases, it just seems like you have to be near perfect, unfortunately.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. You do. Whereas, other cases, they could be completely sloppy, and you’ll still get a conviction because the people involved are sort of reversed.
Sharese King: Exactly.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I just think that – so young. It’s so traumatizing. To think that because of the witness that you have and this whole misunderstanding or credibility thing, you don’t wanna put someone – the whole guilty or not guilty – on one person because of the way they speak. We need to think about how terrible that is that we’re doing this.
Sharese King: And we do it all the time and make people feel bad about not having spoke another way despite the fact that these are the tools and resources that they have at the moment. Again, we don’t get to choose who gets to be the witness.
Carrie Gillon: I hope she’s not feeling guilty for this because I would if it were me, and it’s not fair.
Sharese King: That’s a good question. I mean, I don’t know nowadays how she might be dealing with the trauma. I hope she’s found some outlets for healing and whatnot, but I certainly would have felt as if, “Ah, man. People are trying to make me feel like this is my fault,” because people did.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. People did. They definitely put it all on her shoulders, and it’s not her.
Megan Figueroa: To think about how the media messed this up – yeah. The people that are jurors, they don’t see the media stuff during it, right? They’re not supposed to at least. That’s not gonna help them. But we’re still talking about this. The media could’ve done a better job to help future jurors to help future situations where we could all learn to, again, stop and think about what kind of assumptions we’re making based on people and how they speak.
Sharese King: Yes. They failed, and they continue to fail because one of the special things about language is that we all speak it, so we always think that we know what we’re doing or what’s going on. It’s not always the case. Sometimes, you need a linguist or an expert in the room to say, “Oh, yes. These are the patterns. Here’s the logic. Here’s the rule-governed system. This is what people are doing when they speak this way. They’re following a systematic set of rules. None of it is random. None of it is grammatical mistakes. It’s a different way of speaking.”
It would be nice if different kinds of media sources actually reached out to experts to ask them about, “Hey. What does it mean to speak a different variety? What are some of the rules? How do you study it?” just to make linguistic understanding of what linguists do and the study of languages and dialects more respected and more appreciated.
Megan Figueroa: It may not be your fault that you haven’t been exposed to these things because of circumstance of where you live – maybe you don’t watch certain types of media or whatever – but that shouldn’t, again, be placed on people like Rachel, then a juror. We just need much more exposure to – and media could help so much with this.
Sharese King: The exposure. It would be easy to do because it’s all around us. We’ve seen that people appreciate these linguistic differences across different contexts. You listen to your favorite song, you see your favorite slogan become a hashtag on social media, right, these are ways in which those differences show up and are celebrated and appreciated by the mainstream society. It’s not that it can’t become that. It’s just that it’s only that in those contexts.
Megan Figueroa: Excellent point. Which these are very, very important contexts that we are straight up fucking up.
Sharese King: Absolutely.
Megan Figueroa: We’ve been saying the types of things we can learn from cases like this. Are there anything that we’ve missed that you feel like big, takeaway message from what we didn’t learn the first trillion times things like this have happened?
Sharese King: I guess I would just say that I always like to reinforce to people this is just not an isolated event, this isn’t even just isolated to the way that African Americans speak, but this happens across the world in other kinds of communities where Creoles, or Patois, or other varieties are spoken that may be not considered the language of power. There are misinterpretations. We actually need more research to look into the ways in which these misinterpretations guide people’s decisions and judgements on credibility.
Megan Figueroa: We can use that – just us as listeners, as perceivers – in our everyday lives. Think about the assumptions that you are making about someone’s credibility or about their background or where they come from just because of what you’re hearing. That can make us all less assholes if we would just stop –
Sharese King: If you could step back a sec and say, “Oh, okay. That’s a different tone of voice. That’s a different this. That’s a different word than I would use. Maybe there are some linguistic differences,” as a possibility of shading the ways in which you interpret things. It would help, I think.
Carrie Gillon: There’s not just one right way to do language. I think this is something we’re consistently taught in school is that there’s one right way. People really latch onto to that and it’s really hard to shake them of it.
Sharese King: It is! That’s because some people, I think, feel like if they’ve had to be the ones to acquire or already came into the position of occupying the state where they know this language, it’s a kind of power they hold over other people, ultimately, and they wanna continue to exercise that. It’s not surprising that this contributes to notions of classism and ways in which people wanna maintain their own positions in the society because that’s what this kind of economic system prompts us to do is to think about the ways in which language can be capital and the ways in which people want to maintain their capital.
I think there’re speech therapists who I’ve heard this from, but difference doesn’t mean deficit. I think that’s really hard for people to get a handle of. That’s what I hope people will take away, just more understanding and patience for encountering speakers or experiences that are not their own.
Megan Figueroa: If we have a little bit more of that, perhaps people like the jurors in the jury box for the George Zimmerman trial could’ve stopped and thought, “Okay. What is it that is making it so I don’t understand? What exposures have I had? What experiences have I had?” not going straight to, “Is this person credible?” It’s just that shift.
Shares King: People are starting to do this research. I mean, I believe I wanna say this was Lev-Ari & Keysar had a – I think they did an experiment in which they gave people some trivia facts and tested the extent to which one’s perceived accent contributed to how much the person believed the trivia fact. I think people tended to disbelieve the trivia facts when you had a particular accent. Again, this is a thing.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, it’s a total thing. Well, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for coming on.
Sharese King: Yes. Thank you for having me, again.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, thank you for coming. This has been so important. It’s so important.
Carrie Gillon: We finally got to it!
Megan Figueroa: I know! [Laughter] Well, we wanted to make sure to have the right guest on, so we really appreciate it.
Sharese King: Yeah, no. Thank you for inviting me, again. I enjoyed talking with you both. Thank you for being open to discussing these issues with your listeners.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: We hope that our listeners will continue to not be assholes. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Sharese King: Yay for not being assholes!
Carrie Gillon: We would like to thank from last month another new patron, Joel Tillman.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Thank you so much, Joel.
Carrie Gillon: If you would like to become our patron, you can at patreon.com/vocalfriespod. At the $5.00 level you get bonus episodes.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Very fun. Very salty.
Carrie Gillon: Usually very salty.
Megan Figueroa: Listen, we’re so much fun in person, I gotta tell you. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and our website is vocalfriespod.com.