Saturday, June 22, 2013

Racial slurs and butter, y'all

So where do you weigh in on the Paula Deen controversy, y'all?

Do you love her down to earth charm, like me?  Did you find her original show to be home-y and comforting, the way your grandmother's house used to be, filled with frying goodies and sweet treats?  I did too, at least until last week.

Anyone with internet or an television knows the story that went national a few days ago, in which TV food chef and southern restauranteur Paula Deen answered several questions regarding her use of the "N-word," truthfully I would guess, in a taped deposition for an upcoming race-and sex discrimination trial.

She admitted she'd used the term in the past, and also that she'd considered staging her wedding with a "southern plantation" theme, including having waitstaff composed entirely of middle-aged black men and women, dressed in the traditional attire of house slaves from the Civil War era.  Really.

 Forget the butter.  The whole thing is enough to give any good public relations person a heart attack, just by itself.

I'm not from the South, so clearly there is a cultural chip I am missing in all this.  I grew up in Los Angeles, in a racially integrated neighborhood, in the 1960's.  No one -- I repeat -- no one, ever, said the N-word in my presence.  It was as taboo as the "F" word, maybe even more so.  I never heard it at home, at school, or on the street.  It simply was not said.  That is not to say people were without prejudice where I lived, but at that point, in my neighborhood, it was just no longer socially acceptable to say anything like that out in the open, and since my parents were open-minded folks with friends of all races, I didn't hear it in private, either.

For that, I am thankful.

For all the rhapsodizing that's done about the south and its culture, from a longing for the plantation days and those "Gone With The Wind" times to the flying of the Confederate flag, I sometimes shake my head and want to ask those people what in the world they are thinking, down in Land of Dixie.  It's not so much a lack of acknowledging those things happened, but the fact that some things, like that freakin' flag, seem to celebrate them.  

I admire Paula Deen for speaking honestly under deposition, and I also have no doubt that her own prejudices have waned as times have gone on.  To be character-asassinated for something you said 30 years ago seems patently unfair.  But for her to still not understand how deeply offensive the "N-word" and the idea of bought-and-sold human beings working in the plantation system are?  That puts her a little bit out of touch with the pulse of the nation, here and now.

Of course black people can call each other the N word, the same way I can tell Jewish jokes and my gay friends call each other "her," queens, or bitches.  That's the one and only advantage to being a minority of some kind, believe me.  The slur is about you, so you can take it and make it into a joke, if you wish.   Maybe we Jews are good with money.  Maybe some gays do sometimes act like women, haha.  When we turn the joke on ourselves, somehow it serves to take the sting off it a little. 

Maybe when one black person calls the other the N-word, it's in the spirit of taking the hate out of the word by using it regularly.  Which is fine, as long as you happen to be a black person.

But if you're not in that cultural or racial sub-group, you're expected to hold your tongue and be respectful, and that's what I think Paula Deen does not quite get. One of the most telling things was that she said she disapproves of the N-word being used in a negative way.  But the fact is, if it comes out of a white person's mouth, it won't be perceived as anything but negative.  There's too much blood, death and history for it to be otherwise.

I have no doubt Paula Deen's core supporters will help keep her restaurant open and her bank accounts solvent, but perhaps it's time to retire from the glare of the public spotlight when you haven't kept pace with where the rest of the country is regarding racial or cultural slurs.


  1. Oy. Can I say that since I'm not Jewish? :) I have very, very complicated feelings I this. Unusual for me to be unsure of my feelings. On one hand I strongly feel that words are only words. Words take on life with the manner they are shared and the intent behind them. The "N" word does not make me uncomfortable on its own. When I hear it with malice, my skin crawls and my heart aches. On the other hand I feel that in life there simply are lines we do not cross, whether we see the line as superficial or not. I grew up in the 90s and genuinely believed racism was "cured". It wasn't until I actually knew black people in beauty school that I realized racism was still a reality. Sounds crazy, I know. It wasn't until I saw and felt the pain of racism through a friend that I understood the loaded and strong nature of the "N" word. I can't help but wonder if Paula Deen was raised thinking of that as history, and not alive. Definitely a complicated, sad, and grey situation.
    I really applaud you for taking this on your blog. I think it's a real testament to the quality of your writing that you can put out such a great piece on such a sensitive topic.

    1. Thank you so much and please, say "oy" all you wish! Yiddish was meant to be shared, lol. You may be right about Paula Deen thinking racism is/was no longer an issue, she certainly has led a somewhat insulated life for the last decade or two due to her huge successes in life (and maybe even before then, too). Without close friends or peers who are in the minority group, prejudice can be easy to miss. Good point.