No doubt you have heard of Paula Deen’s seemingly career-ending mishap, but if you have not, here is a recap: The celebrity chef admitted in a deposition, under oath, that she had used the n-word in the past, years ago, according to her. Additionally, she admitted to having discussed plans for a “plantation-style” wedding for her brother, which would employ African-American waiters, although she insists that she did not use the n-word at that time. The former manager who is suing Deen and her brother, alleging a racist, sexist, and hostile work environment in the restaurant that they own, contends otherwise.
I call this a seemingly career-ending revelation because, although Deen has been already ousted by the Food Network, and although other corporate contacts (QVC and some Vegas casinos) are closely monitoring the proceedings, it is very likely that her career, even if most of her contracts dry up, will continue on in an abbreviated form, because she is in the South, and will continue to receive widespread support.
The why can be difficult to explain to a person who does not live here, as that would require the ability to explain the nuanced attitudes of the old guard, which sometimes trickle down to the newer generations. To explain the inexplicable is a challenge, but let me try.
Paula Deen is like every sweet Southern lady I’ve ever met. Her voice, that slow, rolling accent, her apparent charm and warmth, and of course, the food, conjure faint memories of the old school women of many of our childhoods – the aunts, grandmothers, teachers, and all the other ladies that were part of our lives. They are all a part of the formative experiences of many of us who spent any part of our youth in the South. Until my early teens, I spent only summers here, and yet I enjoyed more demonstrations of affection and endearing terms from the women here than I ever did back home.
But behind all that warmth, behind the honey’s and sugar’s and sweetie’s, past all those warm biscuits and gravy, there are attitudes that are not as savory, born of an era thick with tension and divisiveness. And when you get to it, that attitude, it’s a little difficult to put your finger on, because it is not always on display. It just makes an appearance now and again, leaving a person stunned and a little bit speechless. The attitude is never about unadulterated hatred, it is more about the crime of unfairly over-generalizing, carried out people who would never, on the other hand, engage in the disparaging, insulting, or demeaning a person of color whom they know personally.
These are people like my elderly relative, who will say, in all innocence, “She’s one of the most beautiful black women I’ve ever seen,” and think it’s a complement. Or an older acquaintance who asks what color a recommended handyman was, but goes on to explain that race really doesn’t matter. Or a young man who says, “Well, they use that word on each other all the time, but they tell us we can’t use it.”
Or a certain TV chef who wants to plan a plantation style wedding staffed only by old black waiters, because she thinks it will be so elegant.
These are, in my view, good people behind these faces with their visceral utterances, but good people bewildered as to why their way of handling race is considered coarse, improper, and insensitive. And for that I can’t hate them, because how can a person hate their own grandmother, or aunt, or mother-in-law? How can I hate people who loved me and shaped me, and who would actually do anything, for anyone, of any color? This is where it gets inexplicable, where you try to reconcile your love for flawed people with your hatred for their antiquated vision of peoples and cultures.
I feel like I know Paula Deen because she seems like a conglomerate of every lady I’ve met here below the Mason-Dixon line, and it saddens me to watch her swan-dive from the high reaches of success, much in the same way that I am sorry to see anyone who has orchestrated their own colossal failure. That is to say, I wish she hadn’t done this to herself.
I am certain that Paula Deen will continue to enjoy regional support, because everyone in these parts has had a mama or a granny or some other lady in their lives who is a lot like her. They will continue to flock to her eateries in a show of support, not always in support of her callousness, but simply of her as an institution to the Southern tradition beyond those ugly words and attitudes. But I am also certain that with each cancelled endorsement and failed partnership she will learn, even at her age, some very hard lessons. In particular, that one does not operate a workplace in the year 2013 where racial and sexual jokes are pervasive and acceptable. One does not answer the question, “Have you ever used the n-word?” with “Yes, of course.” And one does not plan a “plantation-style” wedding whose central theme is the romanticizing of a sad and painful era of our nation’s history.