Paula Deen, racism, and “teachable” moments

I waited to comment on Paula Deen. I had mixed feelings because what she did was awful and terrible – in a deposition, she admitted to using the n-word (the slur against black people) repeatedly, as well as suggesting a wedding where middle-aged black waiters are hired to invoke the memories of slavery but I didn’t feel like I would add anything to the discussion. I was a former fan of the celebrity chef until this came out – and now feel a bit like I did when I learned that the folks at Susan G. Koman are right-wing extremists: I feel duped.

So in response to the controversy, Deen released an apology video:

Now, I don’t want to kick someone when she’s down, but I have some serious reservations about the apology clip – namely that it was obviously pieced together from a longer piece of footage – some are guessing hours, but I’ll just assume that kind of guessing is simply mean-spirited exaggerations.

But I have an issue with the idea of “learning” when someone says something racist. A Harvard professor called this a “teachable” moment to wake up our society to the fact that we aren’t as post-racial as we’d like to believe.

That viewers and fans were surprised at this revelation isn’t a surprised – I was shocked. Deen was one of my favorite celeb chefs (even though I never ventured to make her food). Her backstory is one of tragedy, hardship, and overcoming adversity – often her anecdotes are tinged with sadness and I responded positively to her public persona.

So of course, it’s a bit of a mind-screw that she freely used the n-word. Supporters will claim that it was the mid 1980s and she no longer uses the word – by the mid eighties, it was not acceptable to use that word, so that defense doesn’t stand up that well; others argued that “we’re all a little racist” and that we should cut Deen some slack. I agree – to a certain extent, we all are racist. It’s a natural side effect of living in a society that still operates with white privilege. But to simply shrug and say that we’re products of this problem and we cannot be blamed for it is a big cop out. Those with these kinds of privilege should acknowledge that the privilege exits, and do their best to dismantle that racial hierarchy.

Others will say that what Deen said wasn’t all that different from what black people may say to each other. I won’t go too much into this, but I will say this: black people using the n-word is different from whites using it – there is a double standard when it comes to that word. Personally, I don’t like hearing black people say it, but I’m in no position to dictate or lecture what words black people should use with each other (just as I would refrain from school a woman if she refers to another woman as a c*nt, though I personally think the slur is awful). White people using that word is unacceptable. Full stop.

Many (including myself) are curious just how sincere Deen’s apology is. Does it come from a place of true remorse, or is it just a savvy way to ensure that her empire remains intact? I’m not sure, but this is where Deen can begin to fix some of the problems she’s created. It’ll be interesting to see what’s her next step. Will it be an “I’m so sorry” tour of all the morning chat shows? Will it be a special, exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters? Will she address this problem in a book? I’m not sure, but for now, I don’t think her video will do much in terms of turning things around.


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Filed under Celeb, commentary, cooking, Television

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