Understanding Paula Deen
Editors Baltimore Times | 6/28/2013, midnight
Maybe the American South is more complicated than anyone realizes. Even after so much time and so much history, we seem to be just as confused and lost by its nuanced existence among the rest of the United States. However, understanding the South helps to explain our nation’s reaction to Paula Deen. People genuinely despise her and love her at the same time.
Deen, a wildly popular celebrity chef admitted to using the n-word. She came of age in a country that was just beginning to institute the equality it had been bragging about for almost two centuries. If her childhood was like most Southern baby boomers, she was raised on the lexicon of discrimination, and used the word more frequently than she or we would like to admit she did.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 meant that people who had been taught that it was socially acceptable to use terms like the n-word in public suddenly had to exercise restraint and only use the word in private and among their friends. Sadly, but unquestionably true.
America victimized blacks at a level that has left an indelible shame in our hearts and we are still trying to reconcile that shame with the fact that as we did so we espoused the ideals of liberty and justice before the world. We are a schizophrenic country.
Given our own history, are we really surprised that Deen, who regularly waxed sentimental about her granddaddy’s plantation and all of “workers” actually used the n-word? Not excusing her behavior, just trying to keep us all honest in this cultural debate.
She tried to argue her attitude came from when a black man robbed a bank where she worked in 1986 and held a gun to her head. But sympathy is a tough emotion to conjure when reading her 2012 interview with The New York Times where she speaks of slavery as a familial relationship, not an injustice, and says, "(F)or that reason we didn't see ourselves as prejudiced." She also used the same forum to suggest that the freeing of her grandfather's slaves was the cause of his suicide.
Paula Deen does know better. She can’t keep making inane excuses. But it is possible that she is not racist. She is simply a product of the environment in which she was raised and came of age. She carries the same prejudices that so many of us do.
Only time will tell how forgiving we will be of Paula Deen and of the Southern culture that gave birth to generations of Americans just like her.