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Friday, July 19, 2013
Since the news of Paula Deen’s use of the “n-word” has become public knowledge, several letters in this paper have defended her. One asked if anyone could truly say they have never used that word. I was born in the South, my people are from the South, I lived all over the world as a child, I am 54 years old, and I can positively say that I’ve never, ever used it. Nope, not ever, not once.
I guess I was told it was a hurtful word at such a young age that I don’t even remember it.
Another letter writer insisted that if you’ve ever played the game “eenie, meenie, minee, mo,” you must have used the word, but we played that game in every place I ever lived, and it was always a tiger we caught by the toe. Until I read the letter, I had no idea there was another version.
These people make the mistake of believing that all white people think just like them.
Most of us know that Deen’s use of the word itself isn’t really the problem. After all, it was a long time ago, and people do change. It’s not unusual these days to see elderly white couples — who a generation ago, along with a majority of white Virginians, might have objected to school integration — doting over what appears to be a mixed-race grandchild. Today, they would bristle at the thought of anyone discriminating against their precious grandbaby.
But even when they haven’t changed, most people know what’s good for them. Even those who might use the word privately know better than to use it publicly.
No, Deen’s problem is not that she uttered one simple, little word. It’s the other words she’s said in her own defense that reveal how she really thinks. At a New York Times event last fall, she introduced her security manager, Hollis Johnson, as a friend. She went on to call him “black as a board” and urged him to step away from a dark background so people could see him.
How would it be if the situation were reversed? What if Johnson were the celebrity, Deen his employee, and he was in trouble for comments he had made about overweight people and he needed to make it right? What if he introduced her to the world as his “fat friend,” and had her come forward so the audience could see how big she really was? It would be degrading and humiliating.
It’s true that he’s black and she’s overweight, but being publicly acknowledged solely for a superficial physical attribute is dehumanizing. And one has to wonder — with tongue firmly in cheek — if Johnson’s complexion tended more toward cafe-au-lait, would she have been quite so proud of him? Does she think her creds as a non-racist are directly proportional to her employees’ melanin levels?
And about that “friendship.” Like many wealthy people who employ servants, Deen apparently mistakes their relationship for an actual friendship. Yes, she may think Johnson is her friend because he’s nice to her and does everything she asks, but he’s being paid to do it. It’s his job to smile and be agreeable, no matter how he really feels. In fact, much of the story of people of color in this country is about the negative social and economic consequences of speaking their minds.
Is Deen so different than many of her contemporaries? No. Does she or do they deserve to be publicly chastised and punished for what can be most kindly described as benign ignorance? The answer, in her case, anyway, is “yes” — both because she is an employer who might be breaking the law, and because she is a public figure.
When celebrities ask us to love and trust them — and most especially, to buy their products — they bear a certain responsibility toward us. They have a right to their opinions, thoughts and feelings, but when we find those opinions, thoughts and feelings repugnant, we have the right to send them packing.
Paula Deen’s career might be over, but she’s so wealthy she doesn’t need our sympathy. She might still have something to offer — we obviously love her cooking style — but for now, she needs to go away, stop talking and do a whole lot more listening. In time, when she truly understands what she’s done, rather than just paying lip-service to the idea, perhaps the world will welcome her back.
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