The precipitous downfall of celebrity chef Paula Deen – the 66-year-old Dixie damsel who lost her Food Network gig on Friday after she admitted in a lawsuit deposition that she “of course” has used the n-word to describe black people, and that she yearned to celebrate her brother’s marriage by staging an antebellum “plantation-style wedding” featuring all-black servants – inevitably prompts this question:
Are we prisoners of the culture that nurtured us as kids, or do we have the capacity to grow?
Deen, who famously (or infamously) specializes in artery-clogging Southern cuisine, is being sued by Lisa Jackson, a former employee who claims she was exposed to “violent, sexist, and racist behavior” while working at one of Deen’s Georgia restaurants. Jackson – who is white, but who has biracial nieces – alleges that black workers at the restaurant were required to use separate bathrooms and entrances. She claims in the suit that blacks were held to “different, more stringent, standards” than whites, and that Deen’s brother, who runs the place, regularly made racist remarks.
Jackson also says Deen talks the same way. When Deen was planning her brother’s wedding reception in 2007, she allegedly told Jackson: “Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little n—ers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now that would be a true Southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.” (Gee, I can’t imagine why.)
In the deposition that leaked last Wednesday, Deen denied that she used the n-word while pining for a party that she acknowledged would be based on the mores that existed during “a certain era in America.” (She was referring to a certain era when black servers were enslaved to the people they served.) She also testified that “of course” she was “sure” that she has used the n-word in conversation, alhough not “in a mean way.” She and her family members use the word in “jokes,” although “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
The deposition didn’t cover everything – like the time she wanted to go on TV and fry up what she called a “Sambo burger,” only to be told by her producer that she had to find another name because (as she wrote in her ’06 memoir) “some people associated the name with an old children’s book that was insulting to black people” – but clearly the deposition was enough to land her in the pressure cooker. Her requisite apologies late last week failed to sway the Food Network.
Which brings us back to the question I posed earlier. Is she being unduly punished for having been born in 1947, when racism and segregation were still Southern traditions?
“A bit of a pass”
Bill Maher, HBO’s iconoclastic lefty, apparently thinks so. On his show the other night, he said: “I’m just wondering, if you’re 66 years old, and you were raised in Georgia, and you were a child before the civil rights movement, do you get a bit of a pass? … People shouldn’t have to lose their shows and go away if they do something bad. It’s just a word, it’s a wrong word, she’s wrong to use it. But do we always have to make people go away?”
Deen’s flaks served up that argument last week. They said that she was born “when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today.” Other commentators agree.
But that argument only goes so far.
Deen can probably be excused for what she did at the age of 10, when (as recounted in her memoir) when she took it upon herself to pick up a bolo bat and attack a black girl. Deen targeted the black girl’s hand blisters, and “busted her blisters good. It was pretty satisfying. I don’t know why I did it.” The black girl’s mother got mad and slapped Deen in response (or spanked her – Deen can’t remember which). The upshot: Deen’s grandfather called the cops … and the black mom went to jail. Dean should get a pass on that incident because she was 10.
So what about when Deen was 18, or 28, or 38 – old enough to recognize and adjust to the sweeping cultural changes in her native region? Yeah, she was born in 1947, but she has been an adult since 1965. Did she wake up to the world around her? Nah. As she wrote in her memoir, “I hardly noticed …. Didn’t have nothin’ to do with us.”
But now that she’s been busted good, now that her culinary empire is tottering, of course she’s reciting all the requisite PR: “I want to learn and grow from this.” Too late. This has become a classic morality tale. If you want to make money off the contemporary public (in Deen’s case, $16 million), you have a responsibility to rise above your roots, not to slum with ancient stereotypes. And if you can’t do that, you should pay a price.
Later this week, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the 1965 Voting Rights Act is outmoded, based possibly on a belief that the South has made great cultural strides since the ’60s and thus no longer needs federal supervision. Deen looks like Exhibit A for the opposition view.
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