Paula Deen’s racism is no joke
But the celebrity chef is not unique; some Americans still haven’t adjusted to the racial realities of the 21st century
Paula Deen wants you to know she’s really, really sorry about the “n-word” thing. In a bleary, teary video apology she said: “Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable … please forgive me.”
Paula Deen’s lawyer wants you to know she’s a victim of her culture: she was “born 60 years ago, when the south had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus.”
The celebrity chef, famous for her high-calorie, near-parody recipes (deep-fried balls of butter) admits to using racist epithets in jokes and perhaps in talking to her husband about the time she was held up, but, come on, that was “a long time ago”.
Wait: does 2007 count as “a long time ago”? A former employee of the Deen food empire is suing Deen and her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers, charging racial and sexual harassment. Lisa T Jackson claims, among other unsavory things, Deen wanted her to design a “plantation style” wedding for Bubba, which would ideally include “a bunch of little niggers” in bow ties to act as servers, like the ones that used to “tap dance around” in “Shirley Temple days”.
Jackson, who is white, says Deen laughed and said, “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.”
For his part, Bubba Hiers addressed Jackson as “my little Jew girl”, supposedly because he was impressed with her bringing the business into profit, subjected his employees to porn in the workplace, called his kitchen workers “coons”, and, well, here’s an extract from Jackson’s complaint:
In Ms Jackson’s presence, Bubba Hiers said to his African-American security guard and driver, “don’t you wish you could rub all the black off you and be like me?” The security guard responded, “I’m fine the way I am”, whereupon Mr Hiers replied, “You just look dirty. I bet you wish you could.”
Undelicious as this is, it’s not about only a couple of undereducated white people spouting rubbish worthy of an Imperial Wizard on a bender. We’re talking about Deen because she has a huge following and because she’s on TV – or was, before the Food Network declined to renew her contract – and because she’s not unique. This stuff is said every day and not just down here in Dixie. A century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years on from the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, and former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door”, too many Americans still haven’t adjusted to the racial realities of the 21st century. Or even the 20th.
The president of the United States continues to be subject to coded language – he’s not really American. Remember Mitt Romney’s attempted quip at a 2012 campaign stop in Michigan: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” Barack and Michelle Obama still get called “uppity” out loud and in public. Recently, a school board official in Virginia thought it amusing to email colleagues pictures of bare-breasted African women and caption it “Michelle Obama’s high school reunion”.
The Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity with chapters at more than 100 colleges nationwide, throws an annual party called “Old South” at which the young men ride around campus on horses with faux swords to collect their dates, who wear Scarlett O’Hara hoopskirts. The boys used to wear Confederate officers’ uniforms, but the fraternity recently banned the practice, along with the flying of the Confederate battle flag, citing modern racial sensitivities. Progress!
Yet the country still swoons for moonlight-and-magnolias, the South as a land of gents, belles, white-columned houses, down-home folks, honeyed accents, sweet tea, fried chicken and cakes so tasty you’ll want to slap your mama. Paula Deen’s South.
The trouble is, that South never existed. Deen and her brother grew up in Albany, Georgia, a famously vicious little burg where the local sheriff famously broke his cane over the head of an African-American lawyer simply because “he is a nigger and I am a white man”. Deen was about 15 when Martin Luther King Jr spent several days in the Albany jail and when some black kids jumped the fence and dove into the white-only municipal pool, causing the town to drain it and scrub it, and then sell it rather than integrate it.
Deen doesn’t acknowledge any of this. She sticks to the Gone With the Wind-y fantasy that, as she told reporter Kim Severson during as TimesTalks conversation, “Black folks were like our family”. She proudly presents her African-American friend, “black as this board”, and makes him come up on stage: “Come out here, Hollis: we can’t see you standing against that dark board!”
Although her many fans are outraged and threatening boycotts, Deen has lost her TV program, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has dumped her as its spokesmodel and QVC, the home shopping empire, is “reviewing its business relationship” with her. All the banana split brownie pizza in the world can’t sweeten Deen’s casual racism. Stick a fork in her: she’s cooked.
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