Paula Deen is the latest celebrity to be caught by the N-word bomb and she is paying a price although many argue that she shouldn’t be penalized for a single use over 30 years ago. But she may be paying a price for some unsavory thoughts much beyond any usage of a derogatory
I’ve written my opinion about N-word controversies with Dr Laura and John Mayer, but Paula Deen’s situation is different in some interesting respects.
Should the One Use Be Penalized?
During a 2013 deposition, Deen admitted to using the N-word once over 30 years ago (ca 1983) right after a criminal encounter with someone who happened to be African-American. Some people have argued that a single use decades ago should be pardoned. (BTW, the lawsuit filed by employee Lisa Jackson alleges that Deen used the N-word again (see below), but since Deen has denied this it’s somewhat of a he said/she said situation.))
Based on her testimony and multiple apologies, Deen clearly does know how offensive the word, and the scenario is one in which she was in extreme emotional distress. Although I would not use the N-word in that situation (I truly know that) and wouldn’t recommend it, I can see how that situation would bring out the worst thoughts in Deen. I believe even the most racially tolerant amongst us would have been calling the criminal nasty names.
And to be honest, I believe that all of us have thought or said things in a politically incorrect direction. For instance, when I hear a rural white American saying something blatantly racist, I can’t help it that the word “red neck” comes into my head. Do we want to be judged for every thought or action we did? I think that can lead into dangerous areas of “thought policing” which is not always fair or even helpful for true understanding of diverse points of view (Anne Rice agrees).
I’ll also say that I have used phrases in the past that I don’t now because I have rethought the context. One I still hear a lot is “he went off the reservation.” But if you think about it, it is probably referring to the forced relocation and control of Native Americans – kind of a sore subject. I’m trying not to use it and this might also be considered pretty bad form some day…but not this day.
And yet, the Paula Deen situation is not that simple
Uncle Ben Gone Bad
One of the topics of the deposition is an overheard discussion in which Deen speaks fondly of a restaurant in which the wait staff were all African-American men. She then expressed a desire for her brother to have an authentic “southern plantation wedding” with exactly this type of wait staff. This is where she lost me and perhaps a few of her corporate sponsors.
The whole entire wait staff was [made up of] middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie.
I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.
The lawsuit alleges that Deen uses the N-word to refer to the waiters, but she denies it because she admired their professionalism. I personally wonder if the word “Negro” was used (which was once the proper word for African-American not so long ago).
But that’s aside the point. The entire line of thought is just addled. Some might say flaky, but I say it’s unconsciously racist. She can’t see that 1) an African-American might not want a white woman to have THIS kind of plantation wedding or 2) you really shouldn’t try to mix and match employees anymore based on skin tone and that 3) it would be breaking all sorts of non-discrimination laws. Imagine if her dream wedding staff were all white!
I think it’s important to respect Southern tradition (and the tourist dollars it can bring), and equally important that African-Americans be able to have the opportunity to find a decent-paying job such as working in a high-end restaurant (yes, that kind of job can pay well).
But there is that fine line between participating in a fuzzy plantation fantasy and making it so literal that we also bring in references to slavery. I’d like to think that persons of all backgrounds are capable of filling the “Uncle Ben” fantasy or at least serving a really good mint julep. Oy. This does remind me of the a friend’s mother who purportedly didn’t see anything wrong with those statues of the little black boy holding a lantern. Ahhhh!
Is Deen a racist? This is not easy to answer. It’s clear that she is sensitive to the topic, and at least one of her African American colleagues, Aaron McCargo Jr, came to her defense saying how supportive she was of his cooking career. I’ve also seen her on shows interacting very respectfully with African-American guests of all sorts. She knows good cooking when she sees it.
But her comments on the plantation wedding represent the kind of addled cultural baggage that can be carried around. And it’s a problem that can’t be fixed with a simple change in vocabulary. I hope Americans can find room in their hearts again for Deen, but I think Deen and everyone else really needs to realize that avoiding racism goes beyond avoiding the N-word.
Postscript 1: Who Should Use the N-Word? No One!
Fox News had one of those recurring discussions about whether an African-American using the N-word is different than a white person using it (YES!!!). Gloria Allred argued that an African American using it was different from a non-African American using it, but her co-panelist Ted Williams (an African American) disagreed! He felt that NO ONE should use it, not even African Americans. This word is really a long way from getting reformed.