Last Friday, Paula Deen was supposed to talk to Matt Lauer on the Today Show to talk the charges of racism that came from her admissions in a deposition for a workplace-discrimination lawsuit. She cancelled the interview, saying she was unwell, and later that day posted several apology videos that expressed regret, while pointedly not specifying for what, exactly.
Deen finally made it to Today Wednesday morning, in a tearful, raw interview that made clear, in a forum where she’d often been a welcome guest, that she had been badly upset by the past week’s events. But her main message was how badly she had been hurt—hurt by “lies,” by exaggerations, by the loss of business, and by attacks on her public image.
Deen’s appearance was emotional, affecting, and often uncomfortable. But if you expected her to tell Lauer that she hurt anyone else with her past language, or understands how she hurt them, keep waiting. This was much more about how much Deen has been hurt. “There’s someone evil out there that saw what I had worked for,” she said, “and they wanted it.” If you have no sin, Deen told the audience, “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.”
For herself, though, Deen clearly believed she’d already taken more stones than she deserved. To Lauer, she echoed a couple of the defenses that her fans have been making for her all week.
First, she gave a version of the “black people use that word too” defense, when Lauer asked if she could see now that “the n-word” was offensive to African Americans. She didn’t entirely know, she said, because “It offends me when I go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other. It’s very distressing… It makes my skin crawl.” Fair enough. Some African Americans also have argued that no one, black, white, or otherwise, should use the word. But it’s another, historically obtuse thing to claim that it’s no different for a white person use it than a black person; that’s essentially to say that racial history doesn’t exist or no longer matters. (And I frankly don’t get why some white people are so hung up on the unfairness of not getting to use one crappy word.)
Second, there was the argument that Deen is too loving and well-meaning a person to be racist. I’ve been hearing a lot of that too: that Deen voted for Obama, for instance, and how could a racist do that? (Some campaign reports from 2008, by the way, try to explain exactly why they could, like the Pennsylvania man who replied to a canvasser, “We’re votin’ for the nigger!”)
The fallacy here is that there are two kinds of people: the 100% non-prejudiced, and the absolute, venomous, hateful bigots. That’s not life. I can gladly believe that Deen is loving and well-meaning and good-hearted toward people of different races. That doesn’t mean, say, that she can’t find it nostalgically attractive to have a plantation-style wedding with an all-black waitstaff dressed antebellum-style, or that there’s still not a problem with it that she should at least acknowledge.
Deen didn’t address that aspect of her testimony, though, largely because Lauer didn’t ask. (He did ask about her saying she “probably” used the slur other times; she now says she absolutely didn’t, yet also says she answered truthfully.) Keeping the focus on whether she said one word, and how many times, and who else gets to say it avoids those bigger questions of attitudes, and the workplace atmosphere that the original lawsuit alleged. That itself is a p.r. victory for her: if the only question in the first place was whether she used one slur, one time, decades ago, she would not have nearly the same problems today.
None of which is to say people won’t, or shouldn’t, forgive her. People do make mistakes. People say stupid things. I’m sure that people have done worse things in the past and paid less for them than Deen has, and there needn’t be a professional death penalty for every past mistake a public figure makes. I can’t weigh Deen’s contrition on some cosmic scale, but however sorry she is, it’s hard to say she hasn’t suffered. Deen said that her critics don’t know her heart, and she’s right. Who knows any celebrity’s heart? They just know what she said, or said she did, and they were probably expecting her to address that fully here.
But as for anyone who was hurt by what Deen admitted to, her Today appearance was clearly not aimed at them. It was much more focused on fans who already like her and are disposed to forgive. They will, I’m guessing, and others may eventually forget or move on, but Deen made clear she believes the time for throwing stones is over.