Defending Paula Deen: what the national reaction can teach us about race

what we can learn about race from Paula Deen

There has been a lot of press about the recent lawsuit filed against Paula Deen, alleging (among other things) that she tolerated blatant racism towards the staff in her company’s restaurants (including separate entrances for black employees) and referred to black men as “n*ggers” to another employee.  At this point, the case is a bit of a she-said, she said, with Paula denying most of the allegations. While I suspect the truth lies someone in the middle, I’m going to focus on the things that Paula Deen has said, and how I find much of it so troubling in terms of the way many white people approach talking about race.

For a lot of people, this controversy has been boiled down to whether or not Paula Deen has uttered the “N” word. She’s admitted to doing so . . . she admitted to using it multiple times under oath but was more vague with Matt Lauer. But for me, and for many others, it’s not just about the “N” word. It’s about the subtext of what she is saying. My point in this post is not to vilify her further. I know some believe that Paula is taking an unfair beating. But I think that her attitudes about race exemplify the covert racism that pervades in society today, and warrant discussion. Most of us recognize that walking up to a black person and calling them a n*gger would be absolutely abhorrent. But what white folks in the company of other white people is another matter. Paula’s admissions reveal that, in certain circles, racism against black people has simply gone underground, and given way to a more slippery version of racism that is harder to nail down. In a society where racism has (thankfully) become less socially acceptable, racism has gotten more obscured. And well-meaning white people are enabling it.

Let me explain.

I have noticed that many white people feel an innate need to either defend or deny that racism still occurs. I think this happens for two reasons: First, I think white people sincerely wish that we were living in a post-racial society, and would like to hasten to the time when we can be free of the sins of our fathers. We wish that the world was colorblind, so we pretend that it is . . . even when that involves dismissing the experience of others. Second, I think white people feel deep shame and embarrassment about racism and colonialism, and in order to avoid a shame-based racial identity, we pretend not to see racism, or minimize it, or rationalize it. I’m seeing this happen all over the place as people react to Paula Deen losing her Food Network contract.

When Paula Deen’s deposition first leaked, most people were pretty outraged by the contents. Someone who answers “of course” when asked if they’ve used the “N” word, someone who plays dumb about the impact of racists jokes, someone who acknowledges that both their brother and husband are in the practice of using jokes with racial epithets, who had knowledge of racist practices within her company but did not fire the perpetrator . . . it was all rather alarming. The accusations from the plaintiff were even more alarming. I wasn’t surprised that companies wanted to distance themselves from her, and I affirm the Food Network’s decision not to renew her contract.

But in a matter of days, fans of Paula were taking to the internet, calling for a boycott of the Food Network and citing an insidious allegiance to political correctness as the reason for Paula’s demise. Jason Avant does a great job of addressing the pushback against political correctness in a post on MamaPop:

What you’re saying is that when some of us get upset when a rich and powerful white person uses the word “nigger”, we’re adhering to some sort of liberal nicety. And that when some of us recoil in horror at the thought of putting on a good ol’ fashioned Calvin Candie-style wedding complete with authentic-looking house slaves, we’re just following a manufactured and ideological way of placating oversensitive people.

Over the last week, in addition to the chorus of Deen Defenders, Paula has been doing her own damage control, issuing apologies(sort of?) and making appearances in which she speaks about her character. I’ve seen a lot of parallels between Paula’s defenders and Paula’s own apologies, and I think they highlight some of the deep denial our country holds about race. In fact, I think these statements are almost talking-points among people who want to deny that racism exists while simultaneously ignoring their own racist behavior. Here are a few patterns

“I find racism unacceptable”

Paula has repeatedly said that she finds racism unacceptable. Paula’s online defenders seem to start each protest with this disclaimer, too. But saying that we find racism unacceptable, without action when confronted with racism, means nothing. In the face of racism, we all have three options: we can participate, we can tolerate, or we can fight. Way too many of us engaging in the bystander effect of racism, and Paula’s deposition indicates that she is in this role with the people in her own life. Case in point: the lawsuit alleges that Paula turned a blind eye to her brother's racist behavior in the workplace, and Paula admits that she was aware of this:

Lawyer: Are you aware of Mr. Hiers admitting that he engaged in racially and sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace?

Deen: I guess

Lawyer: Okay. Well, have you done anything about what you heard him admit to doing?

Deen: My brother and I have had conversations. My brother is not a bad person. Do humans behave inappropriately? At times, yes. I don't know one person that has not. My brother is a good man. Have we told jokes? Have we said things that we should not have said, that -- yes, we all have. We all have done that, every one of us.

Deflecting . . . defending. Not fighting racism. If she truly finds racism unacceptable, she would not have tolerated it in the workplace, and her brother would have been fired. What Paula does with her brother is an eerie parallel to what Paula’s fans are doing for her. In another part of the deposition, Paula acknowledges that her husband makes jokes about people of other races:

Lawyer: Do the other members of your family tell jokes at home?
Deen: Yes.
Lawyer: And they told jokes using the N-word?
Deen: I'm sure they have. My husband is constantly telling me jokes.
Lawyer: Okay. And have — are you offended at all by those jokes?
Deen: No, because it's my husband.

This is not the behavior of someone who finds racism unacceptable. If Paula wants to issue a sincere apology for her racism, it should involve acknowledging that she has tolerated it in her family and in places of businesses that she owns. If we want to be honest about racism in our country, we all need to acknowledge the ways in which we have tolerated racism by ignoring or defending or minimizing it.

 

“I am confused. Black people use the ‘N’ word so why can’t I?”

I have heard people use this defense for Paula all week so I was really dismayed when Paula herself used it as well.  In the deposition, when she acknowledged her husband told racist jokes, she said the following:

Deen: [Jokes] usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don't know — I just don't know what to say. I can't, myself, determine what offends another person.

Essentially, she played dumb . . . acting as if she can’t actually know whether or not a racist joke is offensive to others. When Matt Lauer held her feet to the fire on this one, and asked if she was really confused about whether or not the “N word” is offensive, she responded by talking about how distressing it is for her to hear what her black employees say to one another in the kitchen. She then went on to talk about the “problem” of black people using the word and how it has confused her.

PEOPLE.

NO. Just no. None of us are confused about the word n*gger being offensive just because some black people called playfully each other “nigga”. And I will tell you how I know Paula wasn’t confused: she does not go around using that word in public, or on television appearances. She knows well enough that it’s not something she should say in mixed company. If her confusion truly stemmed from black people using it, that would manifest by her walking into the kitchen and shouting, “Hey, nigga"!” to black employees, followed by a record-scratch moment where someone ushers her aside and explains social norms. The fact that this hasn’t happened indicates that she isn’t, in fact, confused. The fact that she has referred to black people using the word n*gger TO OTHER WHITE PEOPLE tells me that she knows the rules, and that she just (allegedly) picked the wrong white person to show her hand to.

Frankly, I’m a little disturbed by the number of people who have cited the use of the word “nigga” by some black people as some kind of defense or deflection for Paula Deen. First of all, it’s not the same thing. It’s pronunciation, spelling, intent, and meaning are wholely different than the racial slur. Whether or not it’s okay for black people to reclaim the word as a playful slang is a separate debate, but I think it’s a derail tactic to minimize the fact that some white people still use it. For the record, I’m not a fan, and my boys will not be using that word while living under my roof. But there are plenty of black people who agree with me on that one.

Furthermore, why are white people complaining about the “unfairness” or double standard of using the word? If someone else is doing something you deem as wrong, the impulse shouldn’t be to cry that it’s unfair unless it’s something you want to be doing yourself. So white folk: please stop whining about how black people can use the “N word” but you can’t. It makes it sound like you’ve got a hankering to say it, too.  And let’s please stop pretending that a white person calling a black person a n*gger is happening because of hip-hop culture. We all know this problem stems from something else. 

“I’m not doing it in a mean way”

Another disturbing aspect of Paul Deen’s deposition is that she seems to have the idea that there is a mean way and an “okay way” to use the “N” word:

Lawyer: Miss Deen, earlier in your testimony you indicated that one of the things that you had tried to — that you and your husband tried to teach your children was not to use the N-word in a mean way, do you recall that testimony?
Deen: Yes.
Lawyer: Okay. And could you give me an example of how you have demonstrated for them a nice way to use the N-word?
. . .
Deen: We hear a lot of things in the kitchen. Things that they — that black people will say to each other. If we are relaying something that was said, a problem that we're discussing, that's not said in a mean way.
What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that's got —It's just what they are, they're jokes.
Lawyer: Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?
Deen: That's — that's kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don't know. I didn't make up the joke, I don't know. I can't — I don't know.

Again, there is no nice way to tell a joke with the word n*gger in it. Paula’s underlying message: I find racism unacceptable . . . unless it’s in a joke, because jokes always target someone. It’s just more of the same dangerous rationalization and attempts to deflect from acknowledging racism. Racist jokes are just that: racist.

This line of reasoning (there is a nice way and a mean way to use the word) appears again, when she addresses the allegation that she referred to adult men this way:

Lawyer: Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word “n----r”?
Deen: No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.

It’s never okay for white people to refer to black people as n*gger. Never. Even if people aren’t being professional. Even if they aren’t doing a fabulous job. Even if they are lower-class. Even if they are pointing a gun to your head. There are no exceptions that make racist behavior okay. Let’s stop making them.

  

“Nobody’s perfect”

This has been the most consistent thread for those defending Paula Deen, and while I can’t argue with the premise, I do think it’s an oft-used attempt at minimizing racism. Absolutely, no one is perfect, but in the workplace most of us are required to behave in certain ways lest their be consequence. Paula Deen failed to squelch overt racism within her company, and the consequence is that her “brand” is no longer a friendly face for the Food Network. There has been a lot of talk about the need for forgiveness and grace, but it’s important to note that those two things can be offered without removing the natural consequences of someone’s actions. It’s possible to offer forgiveness while still affirming that something is wrong. Yes, everyone of us makes mistakes. And most of us pay for our mistakes as well. When my children get in trouble for something, I do not lower the offense if one of their siblings was doing it, too. Paula has to reap the consequences of her own actions regardless of what others are doing.

“Slavery was not that bad”

Paula’s covert racism reveals itself in her fantasies of having a “plantation-style” wedding, complete with black men dressed up as slave caricatures, as she herself describes in the deposition:

Lawyer: Why did that make it a -– if you would have had servers like that, why would that have made it a really southern plantation wedding? ...

Deen: Well, it –- to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen the pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.

Lawyer: Okay. What era in America are you referring to?
Deen: Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

Lawyer: Right. Back in an era where there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.
Deen: Well, it was not only black men, it was black women.

Lawyer: Sure. And before the Civil War –- before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?
Deen: Yes, I would say that they were slaves.

If black people happened to be the servers, that is one thing. But envisioning some fantasy where the servers are specifically black, dressed up to be “classy” as if they are house negroes, is not okay. Specifically hiring black people to serve as an “aesthetic”, particularly an aesthetic meant to evoke a throw-back to the time when blacks where owned, is not okay. Paula herself knows this is inappropriate, which is why she says the media would be critical.

Her minimization of slavery is also revealed in a televised interview. When asked about learning about her great-grandfather, she focused her empathy on him, rather than on the slaves. She lamented about how hard it was for him to loose all of his “workers” (avoiding the term slaves) and claims that back then, slaves were “like family”. This kind of revisionist history again serves to minimize the realities of racism. Slaves were NOT like family. Family eats at the same dinner table. Families are not bought and sold. Families are not property that are listed as belongings. To pretend they are is to whitewash history and deny the atrocity of slavery.

“I wasn’t raised to be racist”

Another way Paula exemplifies our national preference to minimize racism is her claim that her own family was not racist. In her interview with Matt Lauer she insists that her parents taught her to treat everyone as equals. Yet in her deposition, she acknowledges that in the 60’s, the use of the word “n*gger” was deemed acceptable. Judging by the behavior of her brother, couples with Paula’s own attitudes, I have a hard time believing that her parents did not exemplify some racist attitudes in her home growing up. And yet she insists they did not.

I teach a graduate-level class on diversity and every year, I have the students give a report on their own racial bias. This involves an inventory of the messages they heard about race from their own family. Without fail, a majority of my students describe their families as not being racist. And without fail, those very students go on to describe implicit racist attitudes held by their parents, most often manifesting around who they could date or suspicions surrounding black people in general.

I think this is where racism gets so tricky for people to talk about. It’s hard to acknowledge that our grandparents or parents, many of whom were sweet, loving people that we admired, also held very racist viewpoints. So we minimize or excuse or rationalize or ignore, because we don’t know how to hold this dichotomy . . . the dichotomy that kind, loving people can be racist . . . and that racists can be kind and loving.

In many ways Paula Deen is our national grandma in this situation. People love her. She’s funny and affable and relatable, and so it’s hard and confusing to view as someone holding some negative prejudice. And yet, it’s clear that she does. It’s not an overt, in-your-face brand of racism. But it’s there.

Most of the black people I know are not surprised or hurt to learn that Paula Deen holds these attitude. But they are quietly resigned in their frustration at her denial, and I share this frustration. Paula exemplifies the New Racism . . . someone who understands the talking points of Treating Everyone Equally, but who tolerates racist jokes in her own home, minimizes slavery, minimizes the racism of those around her, and fails to fire someone who is openly racist to his employees. She’s not an evil person. Her attitudes and behaviors represent many people in this country. But she’s also a television personality, and therefore her actions are held to a different standard.

Paula Deen missed an opportunity to be honest. She missed an opportunity to really, truly apologize for the attitudes that she holds, and for some of the ways her upbringing shaped the way she thinks. Instead, she went for minimization and denial. To me, a real apology from her would look like this:

  • I’ve tolerated racism in my home and family
  • I’ve failed to address racism in my business
  • I’ve minimized slavery
  • I’ve poked fun at an employee’s dark skin
  • I’ve feigned ignorance at the offensiveness of the term “nigger”
  • I suggested that slaves could be a quaint scenic touch at a wedding

If our country ever wants to heal from the racism of our past, we’ve got to stop denying that it’s still an issue. We need to own it. To step up and start a national conversation about race. That starts by being honest. We’re not being honest when we excuse the racist attitudes of Paula Deen, or our grandmothers, or our own parents, or ourselves.

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