Monday, June 24, 2013

BUTTER AND BIGOTRY: THE PAULA DEAN STORY


http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_cIC17_FAHhQ/TIEaE0an4DI/AAAAAAAACgk/A4B2J0PS0ok/s640/PaulaDeen.jpgOh Paula. Paula, Paula, Paula. What fresh hell hath y’all wrought now? First it was you pushing high fat and cholesterol cooking when you knew you had diabetes, and now you’re slinging the word nigger. Some of us out here – okay, many of us out here are not having it.  I, for one, am not having it.

About 30 years ago I moved to the deep South from the Midwest. Where I grew up, we didn’t hear the word nigger much, and I did not use it at all. I know for sure I never heard either of my parents use the word, and neither did our neighbors or family friends. So all the people out there who keep asking the question, “Come on, how many adults have never used the word nigger?” should listen up. Many, many, many people know the demeaning, condescending and fully non-productive nature of the word, and we do not use it, ever.

  Paula Deen would have us believe that she used it because she’s “old” (66 is old?) and she’s from the South.  The latter, while certainly not an excuse, is something I semi-understand.  When I moved to New Orleans in the 1980s, where I have been ever since, I was stunned at the frequency at which the word is thrown around in daily conversation.  I remember going to a very upscale cocktail party in a private home when one of the blue blazered, white shirt and khaki-pants (the Southern gent’s casual uniform) guests told me to “Get yourself a drink – there’s a nigger walking around with a tray full of ‘em.” I also remember a sales director I worked with in a luxury hotel saying to me, “I told that stupid nigger I needed copies of this document for the meeting, but of course she’s too lazy to run copies.”  I also remember eating in that same hotel’s employee cafeteria, when one of my co-workers said, “You’ll be lucky if you can find anything edible in here – they cook nigger food mostly.” All of this happened. And so much more.

To this day, at almost 60 years old, I’m still taken aback every time I hear the word used.  I don’t get it.  I don’t want to get it. I don’t want you to get it either. But I feel compelled to write a few things that I do get about the ramifications of categorizing an entire population segment with one ugly, unforgiving word:
  •        Words are symbols. As symbols, words are painfully powerful. By calling a black person a nigger, the speaker instantly sets himself or herself up as superior to the person they are targeting. It is a false superiority based on a culturally historical misconception that one population group is superior to another population group. Key word: misconception.
  •       Having lived through the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, I know that what followed that movement was a decades-long effort to evolve the word out of the English language. We who were fostering that effort were making great progress until about the 1980s when hip hop music evolved. The music insisted on using the word “nigga” routinely in lyrics. That use of the word among black entertainers served only to perpetuate its use among other population groups and to mainstream its use well into the 21st century. So to the many, many white people who ask the same question over and over again – “Why is it okay for a black person to use the word, but it’s not okay for us to use it?” – the answer is simple: It’s not okay for anybody to use it.
  •       The word nigger is used as a symbol for “less than.”  The user is essentially stating, “You are less than I.” What I know for sure is that nobody has the right in this life to decide if another person is less than anyone else. And that applies to any number of other English words that need to be trashed – faggot, queer, cunt, spick, kike, retard – shall I go on?  I think not.
So, back to “old” sweet Paul Deen.  I do not believe Paula Deen is a bad human being because she said “nigger.” I don’t even believe Paul Deen is a bad human being if she ran a business in which
certain employees were treated differently because they are black. I believe she is a flawed human being just like you and I are flawed human beings. But there are consequences for bad behavior, and Paula will now be subject to those.  I heard a guy who had been in prison for 21 years for a crime he did not commit,  say something very wise: “What I have learned over all these years,” he said, “is that revenge doesn’t work. Accountability does.”

Paula Dean knew that exercising institutional racism and false superiority was bad behavior. She knew all along that living in the South was no excuse for categorizing black Americans as “less than.” She knew that it was not okay to consider planning a plantation-themed wedding with all black male waiters in white jackets, that the very idea was unacceptable, and a twisted, ill-conceived tribute to a moment in American history of which we are all rightfully ashamed. She knows that apologizing for her bad behavior and “begging” (her word) for our forgiveness will not wipe out decades of subtle and not-so-subtle racist behavior on her part. And rest assured, she is now being held accountable for all of it.

Deen is a much-beloved figure among a lot of her faithful fans. They, and believe it or not, I, do not want to see her lose her career.  What I do want to see is Paula Dean working to regain her career, rather than simply stepping back into it once we are all on to the next big story in America. FOOD Network has dropped her, and so has Smithfield hams. Rumor has it that QVC, Kmart and even her publisher are considering doing the same. But contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in America, but they come with an uphill climb. I would point out that it was fully seven years ago that Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) was banned for life from The Laugh Factory (left)
after going on a much-publicized racial tirade after being heckled by a black audience member. You haven’t heard much about or from Richards since, have you? Only now, all these years later is he slowly re-emerging in the entertainment industry.  The uphill climb and all that, you see? What about Mel Gibson? Remember him telling his girlfriend he didn’t care if she was “raped by a pack of niggers?” Gibson, one of the biggest movie stars in the world prior to his crazy rants, is now pretty much on the Hollywood D-list.

http://img.foodnetwork.com/FOOD/2007/05/03/pa1001_brownies_lg.jpgWhat I have learned about racism is this: Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. If Paul Dean said she used the word “nigger” in the past and that her husband still does, and if employees in her business say she makes some business decisions based on the color of their skin, my instincts tell me somewhere in there is some truth.  I have also observed that otherwise really fine people can be racist." That is their major flaw. And I have made a decision for myself that the racism flaw is not acceptable to me. So I will not be spending any disposable income on Paula Dean products. I will forgo learning how to make Paula’s white chocolate cherry chunkies. That’s my choice. Others will choose otherwise, and I predict Deen will rise again, but perhaps not to the exalted, buttery level she once enjoyed.

I won’t patronize Paula Deen because I get who she is. I have met her a thousand times in a thousand different faces and places in the South. Racism runs way deep down here at the bottom of the United States. It is alive. I often say that I believe racism right now is much worse than it was in the mid-20th century.  Teenagers who try to “act black?” Racism. White collar execs who perpetuate the white man’s executive level in corporate America? Racism.  Broadcast and cable networks that rarely cast a black actor in a lead role? Racism.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of doing away with the Voting Rights Act? Racism at the highest level possible.

My personal decision is not to receive it in my life.  What is your decision?

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