“I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person,” says Paula Deen in the transcript of a deposition for a workplace-discrimination lawsuit that surfaced yesterday. By today, I’m thinking, she might have a better idea.
For instance: admitting that she has used “the N word” (in her and the lawyer’s words)–“of course,” and probably on more than one occasion. Defending telling racial and ethnic jokes: “it’s just what they are, they’re jokes.” And wishing she could plan a “Southern plantation wedding” for her brother, with African American servers in the part of antebellum slaves. (Deen reportedly didn’t go through with that idea because, you know, “the media” would have twisted it into something. Those media! Always turning folks’ innocent plantation-slave parties into something racist!)
The transcript, published by the Huffington Post after initial reports in the National Enquirer, came in a discrimination and sexual-harassment lawsuit by a former employee against Deen and her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers. The lawsuit’s specific allegations are still being litigated, but Deen’s on-the-record comments–her rationalization of racism maybe even more so than her admissions–could be even more damaging to the southern cook’s empire, built on media and butterfat.
They may not hurt her business at all, of course. Yes, there are reports that Food Network is reacting warily, pledging to “monitor the situation”–which could mean investigating the facts or waiting for public opinion to tell it what to do. Deen, meanwhile put out a not-exactly-apology saying that she “does not condone” racism. But you never know what people will reject, forgive, or ignore in their celebrities. Maybe Deen fans will decide this is all overblown, or that it’s in the past, or that, whatever, they don’t need to admire her character to want the recipe for fried butter balls (Deen’s recent experience with diabetes notwithstanding). Maybe they’ll decide that regardless of the messenger they still like Deen’s message–an unapologetic defense of pleasure and down-home food culture.
And that would be a sad thing. Because Deen’s comments were an insult and injury to her fans as much as everyone else.
After the news broke yesterday, there was a lot of outrage and condemnation. There was sarcasm: Twitter users christened the hashtag #PaulasBestDishes, inventing recipes like “Separate but equal light and dark meat.” But there was also another strain of reaction: Of course. Of course someone like her would say that.
Of course, some commenters snarked, a deep-accented, deep-southern woman of a certain age was a deep-down racist. Of course someone who stood for old-timey culture (and nutritional values) had a Bull Connor-era racial outlook. Of course that redneck lady cooking that redneck food would be a redneck racist. I mean, just look at those recipes! Shouldn’t we all have already guessed that?
Yes, that’s stereotyping in itself. I have eaten too much barbecue and fried okra to actually believe that pork fat chemically induces bigotry; I’ve lived in the north too long to think the south has a monopoly on racism. But the real blame here belongs to Deen, not her critics.
Deen made a pile of money off a certain idea of old-school southern culture. In return, she had an obligation to that culture–an obligation not to embody its worst, most shameful history and attitudes. Instead, in one swoop, fairly or not, she single-handedly affirmed people’s worst suspicions of people who talk and eat like her–along with glibly insulting minorities, she slurred many of the very fans who made her successful. She made it that much harder to say that Confederate Bean Soup is just a recipe.
And in a way, maybe one side benefit of this spectacle is that its forces a conversation about the connections between culture and history. When Brad Paisley released “Accidental Racist” with LL Cool J earlier this year, a lot of people–me included–made fun of the song’s corniness, or critiqued its white-guy self-pity. But Paisley at least was trying to talk, however poorly, about a real thing: the tension between people wanting to retain symbols of their region’s past and people who have a hard time seeing those symbols as innocent nostalgia.
In the case of “Accidental Racist,” the flashpoint is a Confederate flag T-shirt. The narrator sees it as simple southern-rock fandom, now separated from the people who used to fly it in a war to preserve their right to own black slaves. That’s all history–it’s about other people’s “mistakes” from the past–but now it just means you’re a Skynyrd fan. The black man he meets at a Starbucks, voiced by LL Cool J, can’t write it off that easily. You can’t just separate sweet nostalgia from ugly history.
OK, so a deep-fried pickle is not the Stars and Bars. But what’s offensive about Deen’s rhetoric is that she’s using the same kind of rationalization: I’m not endorsing racism, I’m just respecting my past! In a way, her slave-dinner-party idea is uglier even than her “N word” admission, because it’s thought-through sentimentality for a racist system, excused as being about a love for beauty and graciousness. It’s not racism that makes Deen love the visual of a room of black people serving whites in pre-civil-rights-era garb—oh, no! Indeed, she admires their “professionalism”! And yet, when the lawyer asks if she couldn’t achieve the same effect with servers of various races, she answers: “That’s what made it so impressive.”
That’s what made it so impressive. It would be terrible if the takeaway from this incident is that not only is Paula Deen racist, but anyone who sounds and lives and eats like her must be too. That’s the wrong answer, but, as Deen’s antebellum fantasy shows, you also can’t just assume that nostalgia for the culture of an oppressive time can be neatly separated from the actual oppression. Nostalgic culture–for food, customs, decor, symbols–is not automatically an endorsement of the times in which they were born. But it damn sure can be used that way.
And by doing so, in the aw-shucks way she did in her deposition, Deen didn’t just insult black people and Jewish people and God knows who else. She insulted the present-day south and the decent people in it; she insulted the fans who wanted to like her food and TV shows and not be embarrassed; and she insulted the home-and-hospitality culture she purports to stand up for. Yes, food is food, no matter your color or creed. But it doesn’t matter how much butter and batter you coat it in, ugly is still ugly.