The Name That May Not Be Spoken: Paula Deen,The “N” Word, And The ’60s South

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

deenI never much liked Paula Deen’s cooking. Filled with butter and gravies and things like Krispy Creme Donuts for hamburger buns, Paula seemed too culinarily eccentric … to foodie excessive … too health oblivious even for a southern cook in 1813 much less 2013. Her story though, like her southern twang, had a certain charm to it: single mother of two left penniless makes ends meet by selling food-to-go out of her home kitchen and works her butt off until she reached the top of the sundae’s cherry with three shows on the Food Network and some spin off shows for her two sons.

That all ended Friday as a deposition of Ms. Deen was released. In that dep (in a case Lisa T. Jackson v. Paula Deen et al. involving a claim of racial and sexual discrimination by an employee of her restaurant, Uncle Bubba’s), Ms. Deen admitted to using the no-no of racial epithets in the past — the distant past, like 50 years ago.  Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of Paula’s deposition to see just what I mean:

Q
Okay. Have you ever used the N word yourself?
A
Yes, of course.
Q
Okay. In what context?
A
Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.
Q
Okay. And what did you say?
A
Well, I don’t remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple.
Q
Okay.
A
I didn’t — I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.
Q
Okay. Well, did you use the N word to him as he pointed a gun in your head at your face?
A
Absolutely not.
Q
Well, then, when did you use it?
A
Probably in telling my husband.
Q
Okay. Have you used it since then?
A
I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.
Q
Can you remember the context in which you have used the N word?
A
No.
Q
Has it occurred with sufficient frequency that you cannot recall all of the various context in which you’ve used it?
A
No, no.
Q
Well, then tell me the other context in which you’ve used the N word?
A
I don’t know, maybe in repeating something that was said to me.
Q
Like a joke?
A
No, probably a conversation between blacks. I don’t — I don’t know.
Q
Okay.
A
But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the ’60s in the south. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior.
Q
Okay

Realizing perhaps too late, the Deen Food Empire (books, utensils,  cutlery, you name it) sprung into action. First a very public apology for sins past, then a new revised one on YouTube, the town square of our age, where Paula looking quite shaken literally begs for forgiveness.  PC gods served? You tell me:

On cable TV shows up and down the msnbc roster, Deen was decried as racist, uncaring, and calls for her banishment from polite society became overwhelming. So much so that the Food Network pulled the shows and consigned Deen to places we reserve for the likes of George Wallace and Sheriff Bull Connor.  But is that fair?

Deen grew up in place far away –temporally and culturally — from most of her critics and, as one who grew up in the same locales, I can tell you that her sin was a popular one in the South in the 60’s . Everybody who wasn’t white and rich had a name: wops, pollaks, heebs, rednecks, pope lovers, crackers, and yes those christened with the “N” word. And each group used the words liberally to each other and even among each other. I never saw a fight over the name calling but there were some close calls.

Surely it wasn’t a very hospitable place for African-Americans who bore the brunt of discrimination, but neither was it a hospitable place if you were poor, or Catholic, or ethnic, or anything other than wealthy, white and Protestant. That didn’t mean people weren’t civil to one another. By and large they were, but there was a palpable feeling of place and hierarchy that was enforced with a rigid caste system administered by state and local governments. That sat pretty well with the white elite who ran things back then.

But you should know those in power  considered folks like Paula Deen no better that the “n*iggers” they brought in to do their cooking and cleaning and to raise their kids. Those “people”  were there and free only by fiat of  the government in Wershington and, by god, if that was the case they were going to be useful, or so it was thought.

The South changed and evolved in the ’60s and ’70s with  the Civil Rights Movement as Dr. King’s words touched hearts both white and black and brightened them all. For those who wouldn’t listen, scenes of pregnant women blasted with water cannons and vicious police dogs attacking kids was surely enough. White people who drove pickups and worked in plants and farms started to realize that the folks who lived across the railroad tracks and who drove older pickup trucks and worked in plants and farms weren’t really much different from themselves and they had the same lack of control over their lives. The wedges of words that the ruling élite had no interest in curtailing melted away and it is clearly true that the advent of political correctness  shown a glaring light on those southern dinosaurs who couldn’t or wouldn’t change.

Which brings us back to Paula Deen. Paula likely grew up in one of those same southern small towns  like I did. She also likely made a distinction between “black people” (as they were called then ), who worked hard and raised their families as best they could under grinding poverty, and “n*ggers” who were seen as lazy, irresponsible, thuggish and no account. She likely came to learn that names reflect stereotypes and they can be and are often wrong; that people don’t fit nicely into boxes; and that, as Edmund Burke so wisely reminds us, you can’t draw up an indictment against a whole people.

Paula evolved and the South evolved. But the question remains for Paula and those like her: When is the sentence for violating political correctness over? When can you freely admit a mistake made decades ago without fear of reprisal? Not the criminal kind administered by the state, but the reprisal from the overlords of decorum who sit in ivory towers or corporate boardrooms and wax philosophic on all manner of society’s ills and largely for their own benefit ? When will a society committed to free expression allow itself to deal honestly with its past and say publicly a two-syllable word that most find offensive?

In my view, you don’t need a word that no one can utter. You don’t need to continually explain and apologize for sins made years ago in a culture far, far away if you’ve done it once and sincerely. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t need to feel society’s wrath for simply telling the truth about that society.

Paula Deen is no hero, but she is certainly no villain for growing up as she did and living as she did. When we master that fact perhaps we can overcome the racism that divides us even as we accept that our differences spring largely from things over which we have little control, and that we can come together in spite of ourselves if we forgive as freely and as often as we decry.

Source: Huffington Post

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

1,063 thoughts on “The Name That May Not Be Spoken: Paula Deen,The “N” Word, And The ’60s South”

  1. Elaine M.
    1, August 14, 2013 at 8:35 am
    Blouise,

    It’s all about context, isn’t it?

    ====================================

    Yes. And it is the context they want us to ignore. White-washing. 😉

  2. bigfatmike,

    The Daily Show did two great segments on stop and frisk a couple of nights ago:

    Frisky Business
    Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks New York’s stop-and-frisk program is being unfairly stopped and scrutinized even though it’s done nothing wrong.
    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-august-13-2013/frisky-business

    Frisky Business – Jessica Williams
    Reporting live from “business Harlem,” Jessica Williams reveals that white-collar crime is disproportionately committed by people who fit a certain profile.
    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-august-13-2013/frisky-business—jessica-williams

    1. Thanks. your suggestions are always a good read or in this case a good view.

      I particularly liked Williams in ‘white collar crime’, in part because it reminded me of some of my own thoughts about pulling white guys on their way to work off the subway for a few questions – but Williams is definitely funnier.

  3. “In my opinion Deen, what ever she may be, is a distraction. The real issue is the racist policies of men like Bloomberg and Kelly.”

    Bingo. Paula Deen is a sideshow compared to the (usually silent) systemic racism practiced by pols like Bloomberg and Kelly.

  4. Paula Deen wanted black people who were in service at the wedding. She reminds me of those white ladies in the “Help”. There were plenty of black servants at their parties and, yes, those ladies were racists.

    1. “were plenty of black servants at their parties”

      Am I missing something or is there something totally contradictory in thinking someone is too dirty to sit at the table so the best thing is to put them in the kitchen preparing the food.

      I guess that old saw ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really is true.

      1. It is amazing how many racists, by their statements and actions, let African American nannies take care of their kids. Don’t want to sit next to them etc but it is okay for people they revile to raise their kids for them.

        1. Regardless of who is or is not racist, it would be fascinating to me to hear someone explain the steps in reasoning that lead from ‘don’t want to shake hands or touch you in any way’ to ‘now, please take care of my child’, or ‘please feed my child’, or even ‘please, nurse my child’.

          I have to admit I don’t understand it. But, apparently some make that transition.

  5. While context is important, bad intent is more so. Who would want to put in a celebration like a wedding people that they revile? I know a fair number of racists, some of the quite rabid, and not a one of them would want blacks anywhere near a wedding of theirs. Not even parking the cars or catering the food let alone participating in the processional pageantry. Was what she said insensitive? Certainly. But was it racist? Maybe not.

    1. “While context is important, bad intent is more so”

      Sure, I would agree that expressed intent is the best evidence we have regarding racist attitudes.

      But I would disagree that the fact that some racist would not want minorities any where near them tells us about all racists or all patterns of racist behavior.

      I would argue that certain kinds of inclusion, particularly in subservient roles, are also racist.

      But this is all about Deen. While there is much to say and many opinions yet to be expressed, I think, what ever she is, she is just a minor player.

      I would argue that there are far more important people for our concern.

      Two examples are Mayor Bloomberg and his commissioner Raymond Kelly. My guess is that neither of these men have ever uttered a public word that was not nearly perfect for the cameras and MSM.

      Yet they are champions of policies that are undeniably racist. Others have discussed in great detail the problem with the policy of ‘stop and frisk’.

      My concern is with their justification that claims that ‘stop and frisk’ is responsible for the decline in crime statistics.

      But thoughtful examination of the best statistics we have demonstrate that performance in NYC for nearly two decades has been well with the trends of crime statistics in major metro areas and over the US as a whole.

      There is no effect of ‘stop and frisk’ that could possibly justify gutting our constitutional rights and the wholesale abuse of 4.5 million minorities in NYC.

      In my opinion Deen, what ever she may be, is a distraction. The real issue is the racist policies of men like Bloomberg and Kelly. This is true regardless of the personal qualities of either man. As I said before, I am sure neither Bloomberg nor Kelly have ever uttered a word that would so much as shock a child. But their policies do real damage to ordinary law abiding citizens with no benefit to anyone.

  6. bfm:

    “We would likely be immobilized if we demanded proof suitable for a court in all our life’s decisions.”

    *************************

    But we’d likely have far less egg to scrape off our faces, far less apologizing to do, and feel much better about our circumspection than we did our haste.

    1. ” likely have far less egg to scrape off our faces,”

      That’s the dilemma isn’t it, Inaction or regret.

      I don’t have an answer for that one except to try to keep the percentages of right, wrong in reasonable bounds and try to figure out what went wrong when we screw up.

      I think one of the most compelling arguments for action is that even with inaction there is no guarantee of no regret. Even if we live our life in a dark box we can still get it wrong through inaction.

      So, I say call ’em like you see ’em and get ready to admit lots of errors.

      But everybody has to choose for themselves.

  7. Gene,

    I have no problem with the words long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts, black bow ties, tap dance, and niggers either, but put them all together in a sentence ”… what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now, that would be a true southern wedding.”

    Then I disagree with you … nigger becomes something more than just a word.

  8. Gene,

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Oprah Winfrey Network picked up Paula Deen……

    Last night one of the special segments of NPR was about one of the civil rights pioneers son that decided not to follow in his fathers footsteps…. Apparently some within the black community were outraged…. He should be carrying his fathers legacy..,.

  9. Once again, I mostly disagree with Maher. I have no issue with Deen suffering business consequences for what was revealed as part of this discovery process. She damaged her “brand” and her brand is ultimately the core of her business. Were I in charge of the Food Network, I’d have cut her loose too whether or not her usage was proven to have bad intent behind it or not. Do I think using the word “nigger” should be a bright line though? No. Because it’s just a word. Words only have power when people invest them with power. There are no bad words. Bad thoughts and bad intentions? Yeah, that should be punished, but when a Pryor or a Carlin or a Rock for example use the word, they are using it as deconstruction of bad thoughts and bad intentions. That’s not only excusable, it’s laudable. You’ll never expunge the word of the common lexicon until the word is totally divested of its power.

  10. Maybe. Maybe not.

    That’s the point and, to some, the rub.

    In any empirical inquiry, one can form speculations and hypothesis, but until the evidence is collected, vetted and put into context, “I don’t know” is a perfectly rational answer even when followed by “I suspect” or “I think”.

    Do we have evidence Deen created a discriminatory work environment based on race? No. And we won’t unless someone with proper standing files suit. We will, however, find out if a sexually harassing work place was created.

  11. From the opinion at page 9:

    “When the Court considers a motion to dismiss, it
    accepts the well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true.
    Sinaltrainal, 578 F.3d 1252 at 1260.”

    Thus the judge had to presume without deciding that all of Ms. Jackson’s allegations as pleaded were true. Even with that huge advantage, the judge at page 17 ruled that if Ms; Jackson’s position were to prevail it would lead to “absurd results.” And while it is true that this not a decision on the merits, it is equally true that Ms. Jackson has proven absolutely nothing at all about Ms. Deen or her current racial attitudes. We still have a she said-she said situation on that. We do have a huge fall from grace based on a leaked deposition and a press ready to run with any scrap of scandal. I’m not sure that’s a societal win.

    Now the question becomes if Ms. Jackson is legally not allowed to prove her current allegations of present day racism, why should we accept that Ms. Deen is a racist without more proof?

    1. “why should we accept that Ms. Deen is a racist without more proof?”

      We are not judges, attorneys arguing a case or jurors. As private individuals we frequently, and sometimes necessarily, reach tentative conclusions with the understanding that our conclusions will be modified as additional information becomes available.

      We would likely be immobilized if we demanded proof suitable for a court in all our life’s decisions.

      But you are right Deen has paid a heavy price on the basis of leaked documents.

      The problem for Deen is that many of her former fans found that the combination of leaked information coupled with widely available information had the ring of truth.

  12. That being said, no trial on the merits is had so really no claim of proof or final judgement on the racial discrimination charge can be claimed either way.

  13. leejcaroll,

    Precisely spin control (aka propaganda). The dismissal is on technical grounds – lack of standing – not on the merits.

Comments are closed.